Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the mighty mouse – the main mammalian model organism!
Hyperbole aside, mice are arguably the perfect model organism for human biology, putting on their little white fur coats to help researchers understand and treat a huge range of human ailments, from common ones like cancer, diabetes and heart disease to infectious diseases like HIV and malaria, to rare disorders caused by stray faults in single genes.
Mice have fascinated men since the dawn of civilisation, and there are references in ancient Chinese texts to animals with unusual yellow coats, albinos with white fur and pink eyes, and curious waltzers that bob and weave their heads. By the 1700s, fancy mice were being kept as pets in places like China and Japan – a fashion taken to the extreme by British Victorians, who prized and traded particularly fascinating specimens and founded the gloriously named National Mouse Club in 1895.
Geneticists quickly realised that these amateur mouse breeders were doing a fine job at generating interesting patterns of inheritance in their fancy little rodents, and throughout the 20th century they set to work mapping out the mouse genome – a task that got a lot easier with the use of DNA sequencing through the 1980s and beyond.
When the Human Genome Project was launched in 1990, it included the mouse as one of its five central model organisms to be sequenced and studied alongside our own species – in fact, I worked as a summer student next to one of the labs at the Sanger Institute that was busying itself with reading the mouse genome, spooling out reams of As, Cs, Ts and Gs from huge sequencing machines.
The development of genetic engineering techniques such as the ability to make knockouts lacking specific genes or transgenic mice carrying colourful reporters that light up different tissues has transformed out understanding of how genes work to build a mammalian body or are involved in disease, and of course CRISPR has changed the game again.
But I don’t want to tell you about the achievements of laboratory mice – I want to tell you the story about the woman behind them.
Our story starts around in 1902 on a farm in the small town of Granby in Massachusetts, owned by one Abbie Lathrop. A fan of fancy mice, along with other small animals including ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs and rats, she realised she could turn her hobby into a hustle by selling mice to scientists in the research institutes of nearby Boston, who were very much getting into this newfangled genetics malarkey.
The next official chapter in this story goes to Clarence Cook Little, who began mating closely related mice together to make inbred strains and went on to found the Jackson laboratory, or JAX, probably the premier mouse research facility in the world. Abbie is usually demoted to a footnote as the crazy mouse lady, home-schooled for most of her life, forced to leave the profession of teaching due to chronic illness and a failed poultry farmer by the turn of the 20th century.
But she was a smart businesswoman and a self-taught scientist, carefully cataloguing her creatures in a most rigorous manner. In fact, she even published a number of scientific papers about the inheritance of cancer predisposition in mice in collaboration with the eminent pathologist Leo Loeb at the University of Pennsylvania, providing important insights for the newborn field of cancer research.
Abbie’s fancy mouse empire started with just two little squeakers – male and female waltzers – and eventually grew to more than 10,000 animals living in straw-lined boxed, nibbling on oats and crackers.
Her first client was William Ernest Castle from Harvard University – yep, the guy from the fruit fly story – who realised that this collection of fancy mice contained a whole repository of genetic variations, just waiting to be explored. And the scientists just kept coming back for more.
Clarence Cook Little founded the Jackson Laboratory using animals from Abbie’s farm, and some of those strains are still available to buy today. Yet he only mentioned her once in a 1931 scientific paper, in which he describes her as “a mouse fancier of more than ordinary care and scientific interest.” Talk about faint praise.
Abbie couldn’t win – the world of science at that time was ruled by men, keeping her and her mice stuck on the farm. But while her business did make it into the media, it was usually framed around how strange it was that a woman should be doing this, given that ladies are so afraid of mice.
So, with a big ‘up yours’ to the sexism of the early 20th century, let’s hear it for Abbie Lathrop and her farmyard laboratory, and for the millions of lifesaving mice in labs all over the world whose journey originally started in her Massachusetts barn.
References and further reading