Thursday, September 16, 1999

a better mouse

Like a number of other people around the nation, I read with great interest news accounts of the recently announced gene-splicing success at Princeton University.

A team of researchers, including Princeton University neurobiologist Joe Tsien, announced Sept. 1 they had engineered a super-intelligent mouse they named Doogie, after the teenager on the TV show "Doogie Howser MD," the rationale being that the character was an annoying little pipsqueak too (The Princeton Packet, Sept. 3).

This announcement immediately raises a number of questions among thoughtful folk. For starters, why on earth would an Ivy League institution pick a name with the initials PU? Even the University of Pittsburgh had the sense to put the U before the P so that the worst students at rival schools can say is only "Boy, your school is a real Pitt."

Why on earth would someone want to make a better mouse? With the sort of brains Princeton University attracts, you would think they could put their effort into something more useful, like designing a better mousetrap and dumber mice.

My first year living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, we developed a serious mouse problem. The tracking ball kept getting stuck, so it was next to impossible for me to get a high score on our laptop computer's copy of Solitaire during the relatively brief periods that we had electricity and I could turn the thing on.

But besides that, for a couple months we had problems with little brown furry creatures sneaking in and making off with food, including food in airtight packages. Haitian cats, of course, often are used for human consumption, with the result they're not easy to find, and we were forced to rely on mouse traps and our guard dog Gideon.

Gideon's own brush with rodent control came during my second year in Haiti, when a large rat climbed in the window while we were eating dinner. For half an hour, three of us chased the rat through the living room, trying to hit the rat with a sauce pan, a baseball bat and a can of Raid (kills rats dead?).

Gideon was the only one to connect with the rat, although Dan and I both beat a chair senseless trying to flush it out of hiding. Gideon grabbed the rat in his jaws for about three seconds, until it scratched him on the nose and got away.

The rodent problem persisted, even after we introduced a variety of poisons and rat and mouse traps. All we succeeded at was increasing the intelligence level of the average mouse in our home.

At first the smarter mouse -- no doubt also engineered by Dr. Tsien and his fellow researchers -- would convince his companion to run across the trap and see if it was armed. After this had gone on a few months, the surviving mice, born from the intelligent mice, had wised up to this trick, and formed a union to protest their unsafe work conditions.

As time went on, the mice would find ways to get the bait without getting caught, and find all sorts of escape routes from a trap that would keep even James Bond in maximum security.
Ever since "Tom and Jerry" debuted, mice have been getting uppity. Believe me, they don't need any extra help from Dr. Tsien.

My whole point, of course, is that mice are a pain in the neck to get rid of as it is. By adding the gene NR2B, Dr. Tsien allowed mice to learn faster and double their SAT scores with only a few extra hours of study. The experiment succeeded so well that two of the mice plan to take a full class load at Princeton University in the Class of 2004 if they can get enough financial aid.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking these recent discoveries and what they mean for the human race years down the road. With more research, the work Dr. Tsien and his colleagues have done could become the foundation for treating Alzheimer's disease, a few mental disabilities and generally making people smarter.

Who knows? One day gene therapy might even make a scientist smart enough to invent a better mousetrap.

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