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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2001

A wiser quest is to build a better mousetrap

CAMDEN, Mich. - News from the genetics front continues to amaze and dazzle us. Hardly a day goes by when we do not hear about some new wonder being generated by the mix and match alchemy of biological engineering. After creating Dolly the sheep and creating mice that glow in the dark, the scientists have now announced their success in growing human brain cells in the heads of mice.

The scientists have not observed any deleterious human effects on the mice or seen any bizarre behavior in them. The scientists hope that this Frankenstein-esque experiment would open up enormous possibilities for treating hitherto incurable ailments in humans. They also think it is possible to replace mice brains with human brain cells.

The scientists are, in all fairness, concerned about the ethical implications of such experiments. They are concerned that if the genie of genetic engineering should get out of the proverbial bottle, who could predict the end point even if there were one?

I feel sorry for the mice. For all we know they, like their other rodent cousins the rats, have climbed the evolutionary ladder just as successfully as humans have. They are more adept at adjusting to changing situations, can outsmart us without the benefit of human neurons, and have been running circles around us for untold millennia.

I cohabitate with some of their kind at our Lake Diane cottage in Camden. I see them scurrying around the cottage with impunity.

I tried to outsmart them with the help of mousetraps. After smashing my fingers a few times I was able to load them with chunks of choice cheese. I placed the traps at strategic locations along the path of their stampede and waited. Next day, the cheese was gone, nibbled neatly around the trap, but no mice. As I was repriming the traps, and smashing my fingers once again, I wished I had some mice brain cells in my head to help me get even with them.

It is impossible to outsmart the mice. Just look at how Jerry makes a fool of Tom in every episode of their cartoon show. After humiliating his nemesis, Jerry retreats to his comfortably appointed quarters through a tiny round door in the baseboard where he gleefully munches on his cheese as Tom tries to claw him blindly through the hole. Tom could turn the tables if he had a pinch of Jerry's brain in his head.

Then, in every episode he would have Jerry for an appetizer before wolfing down his favorite cat chow. Mice and their cousins, the rats, are not only smarter, they are also better runners and more sensible eaters than us humans.

Without the benefit of steroids, a rat can run half a mile without pause. Translated into human terms, that would be nonstop running for 90 miles. And rats eat and drink according to their needs, no matter how plentiful the food. How many of us mortals possess this kind of restraint at the all-you-can-eat buffets? Wouldn't it make sense to start putting bits of rodent tissues in our hearts and brains?

I am afraid this biological reshuffling might lead to human traits entering the genetic pool of mice and rats. In my worst nightmare I see one of the mice leading me and my card buddies, in a reverse re-enactment of Robert Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamelin, to the water's edge with the help of a tiny flute.

I think scientists should instead concentrate on developing a better mousetrap.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade. E-mail him at aghaji@buckeye-express.com.



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