I bet you know the words to Three Blind Mice and Hickory Dickory Doc and have seen at least some of Mighty Mouse, Tom & Jerry, Speedy Gonzales, An American Tail, Stuart Little, The Great Mouse Detective, Flushed Away, Ratatouille, and Desperaux. You’ve hugged Mickey and Minnie at Disney World. You’ve played the ultimate Rube Goldberg game Mouse Trap (and maybe even used the very handy 2D graphical JSL function with the same name). You have a fancy electronic one attached to your computer. You’ve read (Cliffs or Spark notes for) John Steinbeck’s classic novel. A neutral observer of Western culture over the last century might easily conclude we love mice.
But hang on. Over the centuries, these furry little friends have shuttled countless fleas bearing Yersinia pestis, the microbe of bubonic plague (the Black Death), killing around one-third of Europe between 1347 to 1353 and causing numerous devastating outbreaks ever since.
On a less severe but likely equally numerous scale, they’ve exasperated wives, husbands and children in homes everywhere. A $&*# one even found its way into our pantry last week; that’s not supposed to happen in 2009! Key science question: Why does it nibble daintily in bags of powdered sugar, chocolate candies and caramel but doesn’t touch the Fiber One or wheat bran? Regardless, an old-school trap baited with peanut butter summarily ended its mini-foray into food paradise.
What about the mouse’s bigger and tougher cousin, the rat? Who really loves or wants to be a rat? James Cagney, Willard, and Ratigan certainly don’t help. My father-in-law, who spent much of his career in a naval shipyard, tells stories of rats the size of felines and canines, and meaner than both.
So do we love or hate mice?
Genomics will tip the scales in their favor. The little critters offer great promise to human health as a model organism, as the mouse genome is around 99% similar to ours. Commercial, government and academic institutions worldwide are making great strides in mouse comparative genomics; see the National Human Genome Research Institute Web site for some details. Top-tier researchers like David Threadgill (formerly at UNC, now at NC State) have provided great service to the scientific community with their extensive inbred lines and genetic analyses. The links between mice and men are often difficult and error prone, but steady progress continues (Arriba, Arriba, Andele! Andele!).
At SAS, we’re hoping to help with new features in JMP Genomics 4.1 (due out late this year) that provide graphical methods for interactively viewing and comparing advanced statistical results across an entire mouse or rat genome, including ability to drill down and display tracks.
Like Reepicheep in The Chronicles of Narnia, a hero of the 21st century could very well be one with an already-cool name: Mus musculus.