Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Lab Mouse Story

The other day I happened to stumble onto a very interesting article that appeared in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer written by Chandra Emani, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Western Kentucky University-Owensboro. I thought the article was so interesting that I contacted Dr. Emani and a new friendship has developed.  As it turns out he also likes to write short articles about interesting and obscure tidbits of science.  Apart from teaching introductory and advanced courses in molecular biology and Genetics and researching on utilizing plants to make useful products such as biofuels and anti-cancerous pharmaceuticals, he enjoys explaining science in simple words to his daughter and son.   With his permission I am including here his Lab Mouse Story.  Dr. Emani has agreed to also contribute additional articles for this blog. It is our hope that he will bring our readers food for thought in the months and years ahead.  He may be reached at

The Lab Mouse Story
Chandra Emani

Ever since we were kids, whenever we visit or visualize a lab where medical or biological research is carried out, we always view a ubiquitous cute creature that the scientist experiments with, the white lab mouse. What is it with this animal that scientists always seem to test everything on and then have eureka moments in discovering new phenomena, new drugs that cure all ills? How does something tested in mice be good for humans? Let’s go back in time to see when it all started and then how these little creatures became the model research organisms for genetics, psychology and medicine.

In 1700s, the discoverer of blood circulation system William Harvey recorded the first experiments with mice to study both the processes of blood circulation and reproduction to translate the findings for use in human medicine simply because they were animals that were easy to breed and had an ideal generation time (as in going from parents to offspring) as laboratory animals. The discoverer of the microscope Robert Hooke also working in that same period used them to investigate what happens to life forms under conditions of increased air pressure in enclosed spaces. Joseph Priestley who first made oxygen in the lab tested his lab made life saving gas on lab mice.

Another remarkable scientific event that was cut short in the 1800s involved lab mice. In 1850s, the Austrian Monk Gregor Mendel wanted to study how genes transmitted from to parents to their next generation using lab mice. But in the Church where he had his small lab, his supervisor cut short his experiments to “stop the work with the smelly creatures.” Mendel then had to choose another experimental model, the pea plant and his work, though revolutionary, was published in an obscure journal that had to wait 35 years to be rediscovered (research with plants was not as recognized as animal research) and that set back the revolution known as Genetics. It was only in 1902 that the French biologist Lucien Cuenot replicated Mendel’s laws of genetics using lab mice.

But the real revolution of establishing the lab mouse as an ideal experimental model in 1900 in a farm at Granby, Massachusetts where an elementary schoolteacher named Abbie Lathrop from Illinois started a poultry business. The poultry business failed and Abbie started breeding mice for hobbyists and pet owners. The other animals she raise were ferrets, rabbits and guinea pigs (another popular lab animal of choice). She was assisted by her close friends Edith Chapman and Ada Gray. Abbie started with a pair of waltzing mice she got from her farm and soon successfully multiplied the litter to 11,000. It was at this point that some scientific researchers started looking at her unique and meticulous process of breeding and maintenance of mice in wooden boxes with straw mats fed on oats and crackers and soon the word spread. Abbie started selling mice to scientific labs. At one point, she recorded using one and a half tons of oats and over a dozen barrels of crackers in a month and paying pocket money of a pristine 7 cents an hour to local children to clean the cages of the mice. After her mice made way to the Harvard University, the United States government purchased her mice and guinea pigs to test toxic gases in the trenches of the First World War. The adage of “being used as a guinea pigs” came from.

In 1908, Abbie saw that some of her mice started developing some unusual skin lesions or scars. She wrote a letter to the famous experimental pathologist Leo Loeb at the Washington University and he identified them as cancerous tumors remarkably similar in properties to breast cancer tumors in humans. Loeb encouraged Abbie to develop inbred strains of these mice and between 1913 to 1919, the unlikely pair of a farm woman and a scientist authored 10 journal articles, some of them in Journal of Cancer Research and Journal of Experimental Medicine where they found the biological basis of cancer using a lab mouse model, and the rest as they say is history. During this time, a Harvard geneticist William Castle purchased some of Abbie’s mice and an undergraduate working in his lab by the name Clarence Cook Little (who later became famous for establishing the role of tobacco in causing cancer) was instrumental in developing the mouse strain called “Black 6” which is the frequently used lab mouse till date. Though Little patronizingly referred to Abbie as a “talented pet-shop owner”, it is a known fact now that the famous DBA (Dilute, Brown and non-Agouti) inbred mouse strain that is widely used in medical research came from a silver fawn mouse developed by Abbie. Abbie died as an unsung heroine in 1918 due to pernicious anemia, but her notebooks, observations and meticulous breeding records kept at the famous biomedical research institute, the Jackson Laboratory in California revealed that at least five strains of lab mice that are used today in labs around the world heralding many revolutionary studies came from a single female mouse that she bred in her farm.

As modern medical marvels and possibly a cure for the dreaded disease cancer would one day see the light only after clinical trials translate from countless “mouse model experiments”, let’s salute the unsung heroine behind it all, Abbie Lathrop, a home schooled elementary school teacher who worked from a modest farm in Granby, Massachusetts and heralded the greatest scientific revolutions in medical science.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your contribution to this blog and here's hoping that you find many other interesting articles to contribute. I personally find these short pieces very interesting and educational. I found your mention about Gregor Mendel being told to stop fooling around with the smelling mice a fairly common reaction to many important developments in science. Joseph Tykociner, the inventor of sound motion pictures, was told to stop fooling around with that silly stuff by his superiors. I am sure that this has been repeated thousands of times for important discoveries, or, should I say, discoveries that were never made. Invention and creativity always go outside the box.