Why you can't do science with just any old mouse


Laboratory mice are not the same creatures you'll find living in your wall or a farm field. Instead, they are highly specialized. Whether born of high-tech genetic manipulation or good, old-fashioned selective breeding, each type of mouse—and there are thousands in the catalogs—is designed to test specific types of questions. Use the wrong mouse, and your data will be worthless. Or, at least, your conclusions will be incorrect.

That's what happened recently, when the authors of a 2006 paper in the Journal of Immunology retracted their work after belatedly realizing that it was based on studies done with the wrong mouse. They'd meant to buy a mouse that lacked a specific gene. Instead, thanks to a simple typo, they'd ended up with mice that lacked that gene—and a key chemical receptor in its cells, which changed the outcome of the research.

I've written a little about the strange world of laboratory mice, both here, and in mental_floss. Want more? There's a Wired story by Gary Wolfe that will interest you, as well.

(Via Alexandra Witze)


  1. Kudos to the researchers for retracting their own work once they realized the flaw in their study. Take note, anti-vaccine evangelists and ESP believers.

    1. Jackson Labs in Bar Harbor, Maine is by far one of the largest, if the largest, mouse suppliers for biology and biochemistry research. I used to do metabolism research and the letter J, which usually signified Jackson Labs, was on nearly every mouse strain, whether it was C57Bl6/J or an SJL. While this means that everyone is working with the exact strain of mouse (i.e., a paper published on C57Bl6/J mice can be easily replicated because C57Bl6/J mice are ubiquitous) and therefore makes it easier to compare studies, it also means that you can have some rather unfortunate consequences. For example, one of the mice models we studied was called the APCmin+/-, a very useful mouse analog for familial colon cancer in humans. However, while everyone uses the Jackson strain of this cancer mouse, Jackson strains have been documented to have an additional mutation not present in any other APCmin+/- stock that modify the colon cancer in a way that renders them largely useless as a human analog.

      But why does everyone else still use the Jackson strain? As far as I can tell, it’s because everyone else is using the Jackson strain. Circular logic at its finest.

  2. In a few years, there will be another retraction when it is revealed that it was the mice that were conducting experiments on the humans.

  3. I made mice mutants once, specifically a strain particularly prone to benign teratomas. I also made mutant tetrahymena with a topoisomerase gene that did not work. Scientists are in the business of making mutants, whether they work with mammals or at the molecular level. That’s what we do: if you want to find out how something works in nature, break it and see what happens. You’d be hard pressed to find a lab in the biological sciences that doesn’t have some line of mutant experiments going on. The fact that this lab bought the wrong one is a rather silly story, until one thinks of the tens of thousands of dollars wasted.

    1. “That’s what we do: if you want to find out how something works in nature, break it and see what happens.”

      Not physicists- they just fling things at each other and watch what bounces back. Good thing too- imagine if they broke gravity just to see the results!

      1. Oh, but they do dearly try; the whole goal of the LHC and other large colliders is to approximate Big Bang conditions, where various forces merge, and generally don’t work like they normally do.

        They are trying, with the work on the Higgs boson, to locally break gravity, by removing the particles that cause mass.

        Mice genetics are apparently much easier to break, big messy biological systems that they are, accidentally. They often keep on ticking, though, and you don’t know what’s gone wrong until later, because that glorious mess can handle a whole heap of mistakes.

  4. Poor mice. They suffer and for what? So we evil humans can live longer…unless you don’t believe in God, in which case, “evil” and “good” are merely words which have no real meaning.

    1. There are no absolutes, imaginary man in the sky or not. Subjectivity and shades of gray everywhere, pal.

    2. So much wrong in this paragraph I don’t even know where to start…

      The lab mice articles, though: fascinating. More like this!

  5. I never understand why media reports about the use of animals in experiments always show healthy animals in neutral settings as your photo does. Failing to show them in experimental setting sanitizes the reality of their lives and the suffering they are subjected to. Their lives matter to them regardless of the purpose for which they were bred.

  6. one point is missed here… that is if you want to bias your results you can by just choosing what mouse you use…

    Hmmm… so drug companies can prove anything they claim just with using the right type of mouse to do so… wow…

  7. Steve says:
    …unless you don’t believe in God, in which case, “evil” and “good” are merely words which have no real meaning.

    So many questions…

    Steve, you are the first follower of the Sminthean cult of Apollo I have ever encountered. Or do you worship Ganesha?
    How did you choose from the thousands of available gods?
    I haven’t picked one yet (not sure what I need it for).
    In what way will an “invisible friend” change my perception of good and evil?
    If I invented my own god, would I be a schizophrenic?
    Is this true for the thousands of inventors of the thousands of gods?
    Will my own god also have the function of good and evil determinator?

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