Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The question is, WHY???

I'm somewhat taken aback by a report that Japanese scientists have developed a mouse that chirps like a bird.

A team of researchers at the University of Osaka are breeding genetically modified mice that are prone to miscopying DNA and are more likely to develop mutations.

The 'tweeting' mouse was created as part of the team's ‘Evolved Mouse Project. They hope it will shed new light on how languages evolve.

‘Mutations are the driving force of evolution. We have cross-bred the genetically modified mice for generations to see what would happen,’ lead researcher Arikuni Uchimura said.

‘We checked the newly born mice one by one... One day we found a mouse that was singing like a bird,’ he told AFP.

He said that the ‘singing mouse’ was born by chance but that the trait will be passed on to future generations.

‘I was surprised because I had been expecting mice that are different in physical shape,’ he said by telephone.

The project has also produced ‘a mouse with short limbs and a tail like a dachshund’.

The laboratory, directed by professor Takeshi Yagi at the Osaka University’s Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences in western Japan, now has more than 100 ‘singing mice’ for further research.

The team hopes they will provide clues on how human language evolved, just as researchers in other countries study songbirds such as finches to help them understand the origins of human language.

There's more at the link. A video of the 'chirping mouse' may be viewed here (embedding is disabled, so I can't link to it more directly).

For all their protestations that they're studying DNA mutations, I can't help but suspect that someone did this just for the hell of it, to see if it could be done. They didn't ask whether the mice would object, or whether it might be 'playing God' to create something that never existed in Nature. This sort of experiment worries me very much from an ethical point of view. If there's a reasonable purpose to something, that's fine . . . but for the life of me, I can't find any reasonable purpose for this!

What say you, readers? Am I being too conservative?



Anonymous said...

This is starting to sound like that Monty Python sketch at the vet... Huh. I don't mind science for the sake of learning, but I'm not sure what they're trying to accomplish with this. (Confused housecats?)


Vertel said...

I think a bit too much focus is being put on the "chirping mouse" here, at the expense of the actual intent of the experiment. While, yes, the experiment largely reads as, "We want to see what happens," that is rather what's needed here. By creating mutation-prone mice, they can study the very process of mutation and adaptation, identify what's viable and unviable, and as demonstrated by the unexpected birdmice, be very surprised sometimes by what they come across.

The problem is that genetics and DNA is still very much a "black box" science. We can see what's going in, and we can see what's coming out, but the area in between we're largely in the dark about. Experiments like this help fill in those blanks.

That said, I hope there are some very strict controls in place to terminate subjects that are obviously suffering due to unviable mutations. Science is one thing. Torture is another altogether. Any other ethical considerations of the experiment I beg off on commenting on; I could not provide an unbiased opinion.

John Peddie (Toronto) said...

1984 approaches yet again.

Professors and their graduate students, with an excess of time (and, I'll bet, public funding) on their hands, building monuments to their own genius, thus ensuring further funding and sparkling (tenured)academic careers.

All in the name of that Holiest of Grails, Scientific Research, before which we must all genuflect.

Moshe Ben-David said...

Evolved language?!? This is a total lack of "common sense" masquerading as scientific research.

You can train a chimpanzee to use a rudimentary form of visual language to communicate with humans, but it never progresses beyond immediate desire or need to things like abstract thought. This is one of the greatest evidences that mitigate against evolution. Human beings are unique in their sentient intelligence. It has already been demonstrated that chimps don't have the physiological features necessary to even mimic human speech. Why in the world would you go orders of magnitude in the wrong direction to try to explain human speech via an evolutionary model?

Furthermore, all of the mutations cited are clearly a detriment to the mice. It's bad enough that their most common predators use scent and heat to zero in on their prey, but now we are going to make it easier for new predators to locate them via sound.

Stuff like this makes me proud to be a creationist.


Unknown said...

Evolved language?!? This is a total lack of "common sense" masquerading as scientific research.

I disagree. This kind of experiment is what's needed to figure out how a species goes from 'noises that may be used for rudimentary communication' to 'actual language' - the difference between a chimpanzee's alarm howls, and the phrase "don't go near that tree, leopards frequently lurk in its branches".

There is an underlying "what happens if we do this" element to the experiment, yes. But, as already mentioned, it's because genetics are a black box; we only have the vaguest understanding of what goes on inside, but experimenting is how you find out how things work. You drop things off of buildings, and the results help you figure out that everything falls at the same speed (with variations due to weight and wind resistance). You let lab mice experience genetic drift until one starts singing, and maybe you get to learn something about how humans started talking.

Shrimp said...

I watched an interesting show about DNA "switches" that turned on and off entire chains of similar DNA between two entirely different animals. It was fascinating to learn that humans and fish and monkeys and horses and pretty much most every animal share vast amounts of common DNA strands. It was whether this switch or that switch was turned on that seemed to make the difference between having a tail or not, or fins instead of hands, or hooves instead of feet.

All of that was learned with tinkering and obsevation.

I also read an article about prairie dog colonies and how they have specific sounds to indicate a particular threat, such as a hawk versus a coyote. Interestingly, the somewhat nearby colonies of other prairie dogs understood (or seemed to) the same noises when played back on an amplified recording. If they got far enough away to a colony that had no chance of ever meeting the original colony, the noises changed significantly enough that the prairie dogs did not recognize the sounds. But further observation revealed that they too had their own "words" for predators.

All this was learned through observation and tinkering.

As for this particular experiment, I could see the value of it, particularly if it could be discovered that the mutation enables the mice to communicate with each other at a more "complicated level." It is especially important when we consider that mutations or changes in environment are often considered the impetus to growth and advancement within a species.

LabRat said...

Vertel already said it: the mice are a result, not the intent. The "evolution of language" thing is pretty much a post-hoc "what can we possibly learn from this completely unexpected result?". It is not about language itself, as has already been pointed out, but about what kind of results on vocal structures a simple point mutation could have.

Laboratory lines of animals, be they mice, rats, or fruit flies, take years or decades of breeding to produce strains that are actually that prone to mutations that express in surprising and dramatic ways. Without them, a VAST amount of research on development, genetics, medicine, and lots of other things would never have been possible.

BobG said...

"Japanese scientists have developed a mouse that chirps like a bird."

Big deal, we have a vice-president who talks like an asshole.

Shrimp said...

Yeah, but I think in our VP's case, it isn't as much a case of old Joe talking like an asshole, as a case of "if it walks like a chirping mouse, and chirps like a chirping mouse..."