The humble little mouse has become big business at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. The research center uses selective breeding to create mice that have the genetic traits to make them useful for scientists searching for cures to human diseases. David Brooks recently visited Jackson Labs and learned a lot about the business of mice. He’s a columnist for the Nashua Telegraph and writer at Granitegeek.org. He spoke with NHPR's All Things Considered host Peter Biello.
What kind of mice are they selling?
They are wildly inbred mice. This is a business that’s been there for about 85 years. It was kind of established by a philanthropist on his vacation retreat. This is, by the way—we’re talking about Bar Harbor, right next to Acadia and Mount Desert Island—so it was established as a research facility. He was going to do his own mice, but he realized that everyone needs these mice, so they turned it into a business/philanthropy. And it has become quite a business, but they have an operating budget of $250 million per year roughly, about half of which is covered by mouse sales to labs, hospitals, researchers, all around the country and many international ones.
How many mice per year are we talking about here?
The number I heard was three million per year. They can cost a couple bucks apiece or they can cost up to a couple hundred dollars apiece, several hundred actually, depending on what attributes you want. Researchers look through a catalog—you can search it online, search it by gene, characteristic. And you can say, “I want to study this particular factor” or “I want to study something that happens on the skin, so it would be helpful to have a hairless mouse, so then I can see more easily what has happened to the skin as I work on the mice.” So then you order hairless mice. If you order the “Black Six,” which is their basic model—it’s the Model T of laboratory mice—they bred it there, it’s easy to work with, reproduces well, it likes life in the lab, and it’s safe to say it’s the single most common laboratory animal in the world. Those are only a few bucks a piece, but the specialty ones are quite expensive.
They also have 7,000 different strains, most of them are actually kept as embryos or sperm and eggs in liquid nitrogen, so there’s another large room that’s full of eight or ten big tanks much larger than your refrigerator filled with liquid nitrogen. And in there are the actual embryos. If you order a particular strain of mice that’s not alive at the moment, they pull out the embryo and implant it I think in a Black Six probably and twelve weeks later, you’ve got your mice.
Mice made to order.
Exactly mice made to order. It’s a production facility with interesting twists, so for example, there’s a sign next to one counter that says, “This is where people eat lunch. Please don’t leave sperm here.”
Not a sign you see everyday.
But it is a production facility. They can generate large amounts of mice on demand relatively quickly and they do. Researchers all over the world depend on them.
In your column, you write about how Jackson Laboratory is acting a lot like traditional companies, in the sense that it’s started a successful manufacturing business—in this case, mice—and now it’s moving into services. What services is it providing?
The services are the research itself. It’s the work that’s being done with the mice. They have 50 researchers right here, and these are high-level folks who are chosen to have a lab here, and that’s quite impressive. They come here to get a few bucks to get started. Then after that they have to get their own grants to keep going. Last year, Jackson Lab opened a large facility at the University of Connecticut in Farmington, next to the medical school there, which eventually will have as many as 300 researchers, again, doing medical research, using Jackson Lab mice as a mouse model, so they can test for various things, see what happens, see if they can find genetic components to what happens to the mice and whether they can find the similar genes in humans and therefore use it to develop treatments for us. So the services that will eventually (hopefully) provide cures for you and I, using mice as models, and using their own mice as often as not.
Kind of makes you look at your own pet mouse a little differently, doesn’t it?
Well, most of these mice are descended from pet mice. The initial mice were so-called “fancy mice”—they were pets that were owned by all these rich people who had summer homes on Mount Desert Island. Each breed is at least ten generations of inbreeding—brothers and sisters mating to get the genes down to a specific form. In recent years they’ve actually been bringing in wild mice to mix up the genes a bit. The trouble is, wild mice are harder to work with. They tend to escape and they tend to bite you. I’ve been told many times that people prefer working with the Black Sixes of the world, but science is hard.