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ORNL to move "Mouse House" research

 

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Dec. 4, 2008 — Following more than six decades of developing a unique population of mice to study human diseases, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory is moving its colony of 8,000 mice known as the Collaborative Cross to the University of North Carolina.

Over the last decade, as an increasing percentage of health-related research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, DOE funding in the biological sciences has been shifting toward a focus on systems biology research on plants and microbes aimed at addressing the nation's challenges in energy, environment, and climate.

The mouse genetics program has a proud 60-year history and has made lasting contributions to understanding radiation, diabetes, obesity, and a host of other human health issues. In late 2003 the mouse colony, which at its peak contained 300,000 mice, was transferred to the current Mouse House, or "vivarium." The transfer was made possible using a cryogenic technology developed at ORNL, in which frozen embryos were taken from mice in the old facility at the Y-12 complex and planted in surrogate mothers in a modern facility on the ORNL campus.

The groundbreaking technique helped established a "clean," or pathogen-free, mouse colony that could be used in other research programs. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will assume care of the mouse colony for the Collaborative Cross, a partnership among several regional universities and research institutions.

As they begin a gradual transfer of the mouse program in January, laboratory officials will take advantage of the mouse facility to enhance the Department of Energy's mission of energy research. Gary Jacobs, interim associate lab director of ORNL's Biological and Environmental Sciences Directorate, said the facility, equipped with state-of-the-art clean rooms, will house biomolecular, nanotechnology, and computational biology programs. Jacobs said portions of the research will be used to assist in the development of a new generation of biofuels and ways of capturing and removing carbon emissions from the environment.

The mouse program is one of ORNL's oldest research activities. In the wake of World War II, research on the effects of radiation on living organisms was a national priority when Bill and Liane Russell arrived in Oak Ridge in 1947 to establish a mutant mouse colony. The Russells were invited to Oak Ridge by Alexander Hollaender, an international authority on radiation biology who was leading studies on the effects of radiation on microorganisms, plants, fruit flies and mice.

Realizing that mice have DNA remarkably similar to the DNA of humans, the Russells established special mouse strains to study the effects on offspring born to parents exposed to radiation. Housed in the Mouse House, the mouse-genetics program eventually would include 300,000 mice, the world's largest collection of laboratory mice that over three decades led to a number of important discoveries.

In 1950, Liane Russell reported that specific types of birth defects resulted from radiation exposure during critical periods in embryonic development. In 1952, the Russells' recommendations on avoiding risks from diagnostic X-rays to fetuses in pregnant women were adopted worldwide. As part of her research, Liane Russell discovered the relationship of the X and Y chromosomes in determining human gender.

Both Bill and Liane Russell received the Department of Energy's prestigious Enrico Fermi Award, in 1976 and 1993 respectively, for their research accomplishments. A total of 20 ORNL researchers who worked in the biological sciences have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy.


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