FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman, filling in for Ira Flatow this week. Last week, when Hurricane Sandy sent a surge of salty water into cities and towns up and down the East Coast, among the casualties were thousands of research subjects: lab mice. A building at New York University's Medical Center flooded, and thousands of mice and rats that were being used to study cancer, heart disease and all kinds of other medical disorders died.
What does this mean for the researchers who relied upon these animals? Do scientists back up mice? Here to tell us more is Gordon Fishell. He's the associate director of the NYU Neuroscience Institute at New York University here in Manhattan. Welcome to the show.
GORDON FISHELL: Pleasure to be here.
LICHTMAN: How was your lab affected by this?
FISHELL: Well, pretty severely. We lost the great majority of our mice. And I guess probably the clearest way I can put it is to say mice are very - are quite literally our partners in discovery. We really rely on them to inform us on pretty much every aspect of what we learn about how the brain functions.
LICHTMAN: I mean, I was trying to think about this, too, how - what the right analogy is. I mean, you don't - they're encoding data, as well, right?
FISHELL: So when I think of neurobiological function in the brain, I think to Gerry Rubin's comments. He's the head of Janelia Labs at the HHMI down in Virginia. And what he said when he was thinking about brain disease is as genes are the quantal unit to many human diseases, cells or neurons specifically are the quantal unit of the brain.
So if we want to understand brain disease, we really want to understand how those cells contribute to brain function. And the mice are really our route to do that, because with genetics, we can now target and manipulate all the different types of cells in the brain so that we can really understand their contribution to how the mouse is conscious, and by proxy, how we are.
LICHTMAN: All right. So these mice, just to be clear, aren't like any other mice, right? Are there some - are there mice in this group that are genetically distinct from other lab mice?
FISHELL: Well, they come in a variety of flavors, so to speak. The mice we use, we essentially are trying to either create a model of human disease. And what we can do is take a human genetic mutation that is associated with schizophrenia or autism, and create a mouse which has the exact same genetic mutation in the same gene that would be perturbed in a human being. And then we can look at what effect that has on the mouse.
The other way we do it is a little more of an engineering approach, where we use various tricks which allow us to confine changes to individual cell types, so that we can literally put on a light switch so that we can look at a mouse and temporarily turn off a function of a particular cell type or activate it at a higher level than it would normally and see how that affects the mouse behavior.
And that's very informative for letting us understand how the mouse brain works and hopefully how our brains work.
LICHTMAN: So how does it set you back to have lost all of your mice?
FISHELL: Well, in a way, it presents a challenge - and scientists should be challenged - and gets us out of a comfort zone. I mean, we had worked over a decade to get this collection together, but my lab and I think many of the mouse community really believe that since it costs upwards $150,000 to create and breed and make these animals, that we need to share them. And my lab has been very good about that. Matter of fact, of all the mice we have ever created, they exist - their cousins, at least - exist in other labs around the world. So we will...
LICHTMAN: So there are backups. There are redundancies.
FISHELL: Yeah. We will be able to get them back. What really sets us back is that, generally speaking, in the way we do genetics, it's not just one gene - or one allele, as we would put it - that we're manipulating. But we use mice which have three or four different genetic manipulations. And the way we get them all in the same mouse is by breeding them.
So the real setback is that it will take three or four generations of mice, even in the best of circumstances, to get back these mice which have the right genetic background to really answer the questions the way we want to.
LICHTMAN: Do you have any sense of how long it'll take to rebuild?
FISHELL: There's no simple answer to that. What will happen, some of our experiments will be back up and running within two or three weeks. Some of the most complex genetic processes will probably take over a year to get back together. And, you know, disruptions like this push us to think hard about what we want to do and where we want to go.
So I think even though I wouldn't have chosen this - and it really is tremendously sad to have lost our partners in these mice - it's going to push us to think about some new directions which we might not have tried had this not happened. So there is a bit of a silver lining to that.
LICHTMAN: I wonder if your colleagues are as cheery about this, or at least as optimistic about it as you are.
FISHELL: You know, I've really been impressed and really hardened by the way everyone around me at NYU and people all over the world - I was talking to Ben Crowley(ph) of the New York Times, and I mentioned that I had gotten some 40-odd emails. That's doubled since then. And these are individuals who are offering to give me my own lines back, give me their own lines, to help me with space and resources, to literally take over my experiments until we get back on our feet.
So it's a great community, and, you know, it's easy to have a positive spirit when those are your colleagues.
LICHTMAN: Thanks for your time today, Gordon Fishell.
FISHELL: My pleasure. I'm a real fan of your show.
LICHTMAN: Oh, thanks. Gordon Fishell is the associate director of the NYU Neuroscience Institute at New York University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.