Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Planet of the mice

“Humans are here by the luck of the draw,” remarked the late paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould.

The escape

It only requires some imagination: In 2012 twenty so-called "super mice" escaped from an animal research lab in upstate New York. Eight of the youngest adults had human glial cells grafted into their brains as newborn mice. Scientists believe these cells play an important role for humans in both intellectual and cognitive processing capabilities.

Researchers demonstrated that the mice had "improved" cognitive capabilities, which included memory, learning and adaptive conditioning. The remaining twelve mice included 6 that had had their mysostatin gene shut down, resulting in increased muscle mass and strength. The other six had undergone therapy resulting in changes in slow-twitch (fatigue-resistant) and fast-twitch (bursts of power) muscles.

These mice could run about an hour longer than the 90 minutes a normal mouse can run before fatigue sets in. A house mouse is able to run approximately 900 meters or slightly more than half-a-mile, while these enhanced mice proved to be capable of running some 1,800 m, more than a mile. Along with their endurance, these particular mice were also resistant to weight gain because of an increase in fat-burning muscle. Is all of this science or pseudoscience?

The 20 escaped mice is fiction, but the particular experiments have in fact been done in research laboratories and reproduced, replicated and undergone peer review, all part of the scientific process.

The best of all possible worlds

Mid Missouri Public Radio recently had a piece on Kevin Wells, a scientist at the University of Missouri—Columbia. Wells has been studying genetics in animals for more than twenty years and he is well aware of the scientific possibilities, such as making animals resistant to swine flu, along with the potential concerns, such as the human health impact, animal welfare and yes, animals escaping.

It's quite likely we'll have a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon on the U.S. market fairly soon, breakthroughs for better treatment of human brain disorders not far off and possibly even “enhanced” Homo sapiens sooner than we think.

Some sort of genetic future has already arrived. What are we willing to do in terms of genetic engineering and what kind of public policy debate shall we engage in? If we have a scientifically illiterate society and a disengaged citizenry, are we capable of making rational choices and understand those that we've made?

But back to our 20 missing mice. The year is 2100, 87 years from now. A certain percentage of our super mice from 2012 survived and produced off springs. Might they have evolved faster than humans? Will they look far different from the average house mouse of today and how big could they get? Could technology out pace our ability as humans to understand what we have set in motion?

The Theory of Evolution does not say that life moves inexorably toward a higher level of complexity and maybe our mice will not, but it is about the “luck of the draw.”

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