The caged rodents in today's labs aren't the guinea pigs of yesteryear. They're specifically bred and highly standardized. Need a mouse that's resistant to anthrax but will get drunk easily? There's a lab mouse designed for that. Need a mouse that can get Parkinson's disease but will never catch polio? There's a mouse for that, too. Writer Maggie Koerth-Baker did some serious digging to reveal the strange story of Clarence Cook Little, the visionary researcher who saw the potential in an overlooked rodent and revolutionized biology in the process. Of course, you'll have to pick up a copy of the issue to read the full story, but here's a tidbit:

Little Big Man

labmiceThe son of a dog-show judge, C.C. Little arrived at Harvard in 1906, set on studying man's best friend. But one day during class, Professor William Castle gave him some career advice. He slid a mouse across his desk to Little and told him to find out everything he could about that organism. "This," he said, "will be the one to watch." Castle, a founding father of genetics in America, was not the kind of person you ignore. Fortunately, Little listened.

Between 1909 and 1914, C.C. Little toiled in the biology labs of Harvard's Bussey Institute, using mice to learn how mammals inherit traits from their parents. But when he ran his experiments, Little found that the creatures lacked the sort of standardization expected of other lab subjects. At the time, experimenting on mice usually meant catching a bunch in the basement of some campus building and carting them over to the lab. While certainly fresh and feisty, Little's test subjects were difficult to obtain and differed greatly from one another. So he began to dream of mice strains that were identical and docile, "like newly minted coins." Little's solution? Inbreeding.

0805The story only gets better from there. Be sure to pick up a copy. Or better yet, go ahead and subscribe here!