Saturday, June 28, 2008

Don't believe everything you read

Sara Latta brought this photo to my attention. I'm not going to reproduce it here. It's a prime example of what happens when people place their own agendas ahead of scientific accuracy.

On October 11, 1999, a nude mouse appeared in a full-page ad in The New York Times, sporting what appeared to be a human ear growing out of its back. The caption described it as “an actual photo of a genetically engineered mouse.” A group protesting unregulated genetic research had placed the inflammatory ad, but it was not exactly accurate. The mouse was not genetically engineered at all. It was a normal nude mouse. Nor was the ear human. It was a product of the laboratory of Charles Vacanti.

Vacanti wanted to improve replacement options for patients who have lost an outer ear (or other cartilage-based structure) due to injury, burns, or birth defects. Plastic implanted under the skin can become infected and is not very durable. An ear sculpted from the patient’s cartilage may not be shaped satisfactorily. Vacanti used a synthetic polymer, similar to that used in dissolvable sutures, to sculpt an outer ear. He then implanted it under the skin of a nude mouse, along with cartilage cells from the legs of calves. Because nude mice do not reject tissue from other animals, the calf cartilage cells could survive and grow in the nude mouse.

The mouse's body provided the necessary environment for the cartilage cells to attach to the polymer scaffold, eventually replacing the scaffold, which dissolved away. The result was cartilage in the perfect shape of a human ear.

Although the result was bizarre-looking, especially in the already bizarre-looking hairless mouse, it was very effective. The technique has since been used successfully in humans, producing replacement cartilage structures from human cartilage cells on polymer scaffolds implanted into the patient’s body.

The mouse was later to be called the Vacanti Mouse or the "earmouse." Unfortunately, its bizarre appearance was used to promote the anti-science agenda of the group that ran the ad. Take a photo out of context, add some half-truths and outright lies, and you can convince the public of almost anything.

That is why we need to promote scientific literacy.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Distant relatives?

In response to a comment from Moonrat, I have done a bit of genealogical research, hoping to discover some long lost rodent relative. I was skeptical because Moonrat's appearance seemed to me to be more possum-like than rat-like. Quite reminiscent, in fact, of the opossum that sometimes engages in moonlight raids of my compost bin.

Alas, Moonrat is but a distant mouse relation. Native to the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Borneo, the moonrat (Echinosorex gymnura), also called Raffles's gymnure, is an insectivore, more closely related to the hedgehog than the mouse.

Sorry there's no relation, Moonrat. Give my regards to your Aunt Tiggy-Winkle.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Where no mouse has gone before

Yes, mice are climbing Mount Everest as I post. They look so cute in their little parkas, and you should see the tiny little crampons they are wearing on their feet!

OK, I made up the part about the parkas and crampons, but the rest is true.

Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, led by Tejvir Khurana, are carrying lab mice to the top of the world. This article, from New Scientist, describes how the mountain-climbing scientists will be testing the mice for changes associated with extreme altitude. The ultimate purpose of the study is to find a way to detect athletic doping.

As I discussed in a previous post, athletes often train at high altitudes so that their bodies make more red blood cells, improving their performance. The hormone responsible for the increase in red blood cells is erythropoeitin, or EPO. In the past, doping athletes used synthetic EPO to boost their blood cells, but there is now a test that can distinguish synthetic from naturally-produced EPO. Dopers could potentially get past that hurdle by using other substances (like mustard oil?), or even genetic manipulation, to stimulate the natural processes that induce EPO.

The researchers hope to stay one step ahead of the dopers by identifying markers in the tissues of blood of mice at high altitude. These markers could then be used in an anti-doping test to identify natural EPO produced by unnatural means as opposed to natural EPO produced in response to the perfectly legal practice of training at high altitude.

Now that's a claim to fame I can live without: first scientist to bleed a mouse at the summit of Mount Everest.

I think I'll have a cup of hot chocolate, now.