Let Us Now Praise Famous Mice

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

Where would we be without the laboratory mouse? The answer, to borrow one of my late Grandmother's best idioms, is, "Up shit creek without a paddle." Behind our modern understanding of genetic inheritance, behind 20th-century cancer treatments and 21st-century embryonic stem cell research, behind no fewer than 21 Nobel Prizes…you'll find a mouse.

mental_floss and I will be giving those mice the exposure they so richly deserve in an upcoming issue of the magazine. But I'd like to whet your appetite with a couple of fun lab mouse facts. Collect them. Share them. Trade them with your friends!

1. In an Alternate Universe, Lab Mice Worked With Mendel

Highly inbred to achieve a local hipster scene level of uniformity, today's laboratory mice don't bear much resemblance to their wild cousins. Basically, the lab mouse was invented in the early years of the 20th century. And, before that, mice really didn't have a major share of the lab animal market. But the mouse revolution might have happened earlier had it not been for one very uptight European bishop.

In the 19th century, Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, famously discovered the basics of how plants and animals pass simple physical traits on to their kids, via a series of breeding experiments using pea plants. But Mendel had started off studying the fur color of mice, instead. His efforts scandalized Bishop Anton Ernst Schaffgotsch, according to a 2003 article in the journal Genetics. Schaffgotsch, putting two and two together, reasoned that mice breeding would mean animals were having sex in Brother Gregor's quarters. Apparently, plant sex in the garden was considered spiritually preferable, and Mendel turned his attention to the color and texture of peas.

2. Lab Mice are Famous on the Internets

Meet the Nude Mouse. His claim to fame, being inbred so that he and all his kin are born hairless and, like Bubble Boy, without any immune system to speak of. You may recognize Nude Mouse from his brief stint as a media celebrity. Back in the late 90s, photos of a hairless mouse with what appeared to be a human ear growing on its back began making the rounds of email forwards. An ad featuring the photo was placed in The New York Times by an animal rights group, which claimed the mouse was a genetically engineered human organ factory. In reality, it was just a normal (non-genetically engineered) Nude Mouse whose inability to reject tissue transplants made him a great tool for growing artificial ears made from cow cartilage on biodegradeable scaffolding. Today, researchers can grow ears made from a human transplantee's own cartilage in a dish, without the middle-mouse.

Photo courtesy otisarchives2.