A number of PhD students and post-doctoral fellows in the Pitcher laboratory at the University of Bath, UK, have recently expressed ethical and moral concerns over working with model organisms that appear to have “taken their model role a step too far”.
“We recently genetically modified some mice in the lab, inserting some putative depression genes into their genomes. We were surprised by the results,” says PhD student Mike Last. “Not only did the mice perform as expected in the learned helplessness tests and responded to a variety of anti-depressants such as SSRIs, they showed strikingly human characteristics too – refusing to leave their beds for long periods of time, randomly breaking down into uncontrollable and inconsolable sobbing, and being so emotionally needy that they end up pushing away anyone who ever had a sliver of sympathy for their plight, leaving them to wallow in their own impenetrable thoughts and neuroses for days on end.”
“I swear I keep seeing their gaze fall on the various bottles on toxic chemicals and reagents we have in the lab,” Last continued. “Do mice have the dexterity to unscrew caps?”
This phenomenon has not been limited to this lab though, as other groups at the university have noted similar findings. Observations of seemingly autistic mice refuse to make eye contact with researchers, while some obsessive compulsive rats will only enter a maze by stepping in left foot first and simultaneously exhaling as their right foot plants. While a conservative gene was located just last month in humans, it is rare for a gene to lead to such overt behaviour.
Apes have also been observed displaying surprisingly human characteristics – using cards to communicate with researchers in Bristol, an ape model of alcoholism has assured researchers that he can stop “anytime he wants”. Some observations have even suggested that he has tried to hide his condition from fellow apes and the researchers, believed to be due to the stigma associated with such a condition. However, Lesley Appleby, the principle investigator on addiction at the University of Bristol assured us that “At a recent Apes Anonymous meeting, he was able to admit that he had a problem. This shows great progress.”
These breakthroughs have raised new questions about the ethics of using animals as models for research. When Alexander Brannigan, a researcher in animal cognition at the University of Portsmouth, was asked whether animal model testing should continue, he replied “I’m in two minds, much like our octopus here. He has developed a second personality which appears to be racist towards other octopuses. Not only is this ethically troubling, it has also made his reactions towards mimic octopuses particularly difficult to understand.”