MUTANT MICE MAY HOLD KEY TO HUMAN VIOLENCE: AN EXCESS OF SEROTONIN, A CHEMICAL THAT HELPS REGULATE MOOD AND MENTAL HEALTH, CAUSES MAYHEM.
The scientist grabs Mutant 9 by the tail, lifts the mouse out of its cage, and lowers it into another, identical container, the reeking, sawdust-floored home of Mutant 4.
Blind and jittery, the mice are freaks of nature, products of a genetic engineering experiment that did not go exactly as planned. But, oddly, their encounter in this fifth-floor laboratory at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy may reveal something vital about human nature.
They square off, sniffing furiously, then inch closer. Within seconds, 9 corners 4. And then they dive at each another - a rolling, squeaking, clawing gray blur.
Jean Chen Shih, a USC biochemist, startled by the attack even though she was expecting it. "Normal mice fight also, but not so rapidly as these," Shih says.
By any measure, the mice, called Tg8, are among the most aggressive in captivity.
This odd little spectacle is part of the quest for answers to the violence clawing at America's soul. A Tg8 is born with its brain awash in an excess of serotonin, a neurotransmitter chemical that helps regulate mood and mental health, and Shih and her co-workers believe that that excess greatly contributes to the mouse's fierce temper.
To be sure, a brawl between blind mice in an ivory tower is a far cry from the mayhem and brutality perfected by such brainy animals as ourselves. But the work does appear to touch on human experience: The Tg8's cardinal biochemical defect was originally discovered in numerous related Dutchmen who committed arson, attempted rape and assault.
The Tg8 mice are the first laboratory animals to share both the biochemical defect and the behavior observed in a pedigree of violent criminals. In that sense, the mice are an important new tool for probing the physiology of running amok.
Scientists at the Pasteur Institute near Paris accidentally created the Tg8 mouse strain two years ago. Olivier Cases and colleagues were trying to develop a novel gene therapy by injecting a one-celled embryo of a special lab strain of blind mice with a shred of foreign DNA. But instead of resulting in a "new" mouse pup with abolstered immune system, the experiment led to a strain of male mice with a really bad temper.
The first indicator of that ill nature was painfully obvious: The mice nipped the researchers' fingers. When caged together, male Tg8s - the Tg is for "transgenic" - tore each other apart.
Those traits may be reminiscent of any number of men, but the French researchers were put in mind of certain Dutch males in one extended family described in the medical literature. Over four generations, a remarkable number of those males were accused or convicted of rape, assault and arson, leading local psychologists as well as law enforcement authorities to watch them very closely.
After much study, Dutch scientists reported a finding in 1993 that, they believed, helped explain the males' behavior: They were missing an enzyme called monoamine oxidase A, or MAO-A, which breaks down a variety of neurotransmitters, including serotonin.
Copyright Portland Newspapers Aug 11, 1996
©1996 UMI Company; All Rights Reserved. Only fair use, as provided by the United States copyright law, is permitted. UMI Company makes no warranty regarding the accuracy, completeness or timelines of the Publications or the records they contain, or any warranty, express or implied, including any warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose, and shall not be liable for damages of any kind or lost profits or other claims related to them or their use.
You may now print or save this document.
Money Back Guarantee
If you buy an article and you are not satisfied with it, let us know and we will refund your money. Please press the "Money Back Guarantee" link for additional information about this policy.