Wonderful Things: transgenic mice

Down at the far end of Making the Modern World sit two still white mice. Don’t panic! These mice aren’t vermin; they are in fact two freeze dried transgenic mice.

Two freeze dried genetically engineered mice

Two freeze dried genetically engineered mice, 1988. Image SSPL

The pair are direct descendants of the first transgenic mammals to be granted a US patent; among the first to be produced at Harvard Medical School in 1988. Their relatives had their genome altered through genetic engineering: by inserting an extra piece of DNA taken from a virus the mice are more prone to developing cancers.

This particular strain of mouse, known as Oncomouse is used in biomedical research for the development and discovery of treatment and cures for the disease. Nowadays, genetic engineering in mammals is becoming more vital in the development of immunisation in livestock.

Does this type of genetic engineering and testing sit happily with everyone? It appears not. Some see it as meddling with biological states and processes that have evolved over time. Others see it as advancement in the role that humans have occupied for thousands of years, after all haven’t we been selectively breeding the most desirable genetic characteristics (eg in cows, or dogs) for ages?

However, for geneticists to have identified the piece of DNA that make us more susceptible to certain types of cancers is a big deal, shouldn’t we be using this research to delve into our own DNA? By looking at our own genetic make-up, we could find out whether we were born with a cancer gene.

Should that information be available to everyone?

How would it affect society?

And should scientists be able to patent forms of life?

Explore the issues around genetic testing with your students using our genetics resource “Do you want to know a secret?” Give it a go to help your students discuss whether they would want to take a genetic test.

This pair of transgenic mice is in Making the Modern World, on the ground floor.

- Denise Cook

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