I recently saw a South Park episode that was very relevant to our class. (I don’t know if anyone needs this, but just in case, South Park is a cartoon show for adults that can be obscene, but actually deals with relevant issues and makes social commentary most of the time.) A male character on the show felt like a woman in an earlier season and had gotten surgery to remove his external genitals. In this episode he decided he wanted to be a man again. He had heard about the “ear mouse” and went to the researchers to see if they would grow him a new set of male genitals. They succeeded, but somehow the “penis mouse” escaped. I’ll admit, I honestly hoped for a nature contaminant effect like with the rakunks or the pigoons in Oryx and Crake, but the mouse was caught with no harm done. This is a ridiculous addition to a blog post, I know, but I had to mention it because it reminded me so much of the FutureMouse escape in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
Anyway, when I was reading about the FutureMouse, I kept recalling another image of a modified mouse. I’m sure many of you have seen the image of the mouse with a human ear growing out of its back, or, the “ear mouse.” This is a somewhat disturbing picture (search “Vacanti mouse”) but it is not all that it seems. Surprising to many, there was no genetic modification involved. The ear has no human cells but is in fact cow tissue cells grown over a biodegradable scaffolding shaped to look like an ear. The bottom of the “ear” was then implanted under the mouse’s skin and allowed to form blood vessels for nutrients to feed the growing cartilage. It would be as if someone fashioned an ear out of living play-doh and stuck it on my back (but clearly with a lot more difficult bioscience, growing of tissue, and transplantation involved).
The entire structure known as the ear is a very complex mechanism of tiny bones, membranes, and hairs that all work together to transmit sound information to the brain (Wolf Eye Clinic, 2008). The “ear mouse” had none of these inner ear formations, as far as I understand it, but was instead a recreation of the human external ear. This ear was able to be removed safely from the mouse with no damage to the ear or the mouse (Cao, 1997). Please click source links for ear visuals and the paper to which I am referring. If the Cao link does not work, Google Scholar search Vacanti mouse and click “Findit@VU” when you find the Cao et al. 1997 paper on auricle transplantation.
So, while many in the public realm were scared that this was an unnatural modification of human genetics, it was actually a transplantation of cow cartilage scaffolded to look like a 3-year-old’s ear. While some may not consider that much reassurance, I think it highlights how scientific innovations can be easily misunderstood and taken for something more monstrous than they really are. Admittedly, It is still unsettling to see what looks like an ear growing from a mouse’s back or to learn first hand that testing done on mice is rarely as pleasant as giving them food when they press the right button. However, these tests often lead to breakthroughs that can improve or even save suffering humans’ lives. It is my personal belief, and definitely feel free to tell me if it is not yours, that I would rather have researchers testing on animals before they are testing it on me.
However, we still have the case for Marcus as the mad scientist and testing within reason. Is it right to force a mouse to grow tumors and program it to die? Is he “playing God?” Is there really a need to learn how to grow an extra ear on a mouse? There needs to be some criteria that tells us whether an experiment is being done for good or whether it is being done as a “mad scientist” power trip.