The Transgenic Mouse

Chicago Museum of Science and Industry Tesla Coil

Chicago Museum of Science and Industry Tesla Coil

I don’t believe this popular equation, Tesla > Edison. That makes me a traitor a to my own kind. As a whole, we disciples of electromagnetics adore Nikola Tesla and detest Thomas Edison for the wrongs that he allegedly did him. But the way I see it, Tesla was just Betamaxed by Edison, who was the better businessman. Edison became the father of electricity and modern electronics, while Tesla went mad enough to become the historical personification of the mad scientist. Horror movies have paired Tesla’s high voltage sparks arcing through space with their own portrayals of reanimated dead. Science doesn’t take prisoners. So, the argument of which one was the better scientist is as irrelevant as which of these is the better number, π, e or 42. These 100-year-old physics arguments have been eclipsed by today’s biomedical revolution. Human gene sequencing, the human genome, gene therapy, are just stepping-stones along this revolutionary road. At the heart of this revolution is a small furry rodent, the transgenic mouse. In the context of this post, transgenic refers to an organism that is part mouse and part human.

At one end of this field’s scientific spectrum is Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker article, “Sleeping with the Enemy“, a must read. Her article is a recitation of Svante Pääbo’s genome-sequencing project. Suffice to say, we met the Neanderthals, made them part of us and then killed them all off. The transgenic mouse surfaces in his research, when Pääbo uses them to express and thus better understand some of the genetic differences between modern humans and the ancient Neanderthals that he is studying.

At another end of the spectrum Scientific American wrote up research where, a team of neuroscientists has grafted human brain cells into the brains of mice and found that the rodents’ rate of learning and memory far surpassed that of ordinary mice. These cells are not the more commonly known neurons, but astrocytes, a little understood component of the brain. The grafted human astrocyte cells crowd out their mouse counterparts. The resulting transgenic mouse was both smarter and had better memory than an ordinary mouse.

All of this scientific mumble-jumble was prelude to Dave’s visit last weekend. Think of it as my preparatory homework, my attempt at coming up to speed on Dave’s field of endeavor. Dave doesn’t speak much about his research. He is doing auditory research at Purdue. He has published a couple of papers and shown us the abstracts. I think that they are written in English, at least there are some English words in them. He works with chinchillas instead of mice, their hearing is closer to human’s than what mice have. He has inherited some of my allergies. He takes Clariton, when he shaves his chinchillas.

Dave was aware of the paper that Scientific American had referenced and thought that it was ground breaking. He told us of another scientist, who had visited Purdue. This scientist had developed a process to make a mouse brain transparent. This allows people to peer within a mouse’s brain and see its nerve structure, without having to section it. Dave thought that this scientist’s work was Nobel prize material. My cramming before last weekend really didn’t help all that much. Whether it was because of Dave’s natural reticence or his fear that I might spill the beans on his research, I do not know. Maybe that’s for the best.

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