Like a mouse darting across the hearth and disappearing behind the home entertainment
center, the mouse genome can surprise even the most seasoned geneticist. For Eugene
Rinchik of ORNL's Life Sciences Division, the "unexpected discovery" has been a
theme in his career of producing and studying mutant mice.
"We find a lot of wonderful surprises in this research," he says. For example, in the
early 1990s, Rinchik and ORNL scientist Bem Culiat were studying a form of inherited
cleft palate, a facial deformity and birth defect, in mice. They found that newborns
affected with cleft palate were missing a certain neurotransmitter receptor gene. By
adding a rat gene that codes for this neurotransmitter receptor to a fertilized mouse egg
lacking the mouse gene, Culiat corrected the disorder, and the resulting mouse was born
without a cleft palate.
"The 'surprise' was that a reasonable prediction for the function of this gene would not
have included effects on the palate during fetal development," says Rinchik. "If we used
only the known biochemical function of this receptor as a guide, we would expect to
find neurological dysfunction, not cleft palate, as the primary defect."
In another example of surprising findings, Rinchik frequently tells audiences about four
different genes in mice that encode proteins that share several structural characteristics.
Computational gene modelers have classified these proteins as cell-signaling molecules.
In general, such molecules instruct cells to divide, grow, step up their metabolism, or
die, for example.
"Scientists have studied mice with mutations in each of these four genes," says Rinchik.
"One mutant gene results in a defective protein that causes mouse embryos to die in the
uterus. Another mutant causes mice to be born with cleft palates (for an apparently
different reason than that discussed above). The third mutant results in inflammatory
disease in young animals, and the fourth causes the mouse to be born with slight
cartilage abnormalities that show up as shortened ears in an otherwise healthy animal.
"The point is that although these proteins belong to the same general family of
cell-signaling molecules, they have different functions in the mouse. The evidence
gained from mouse-breeding experiments improve understanding of what happens at the
level of the organism and, therefore, add value to computational predictions about the
biochemical functions of genes in the mouse genome."
Rinchik and his colleagues continue to look for new
dominant and recessive single-base gene mutations in
the descendants of mice exposed to ethylnitrosourea
(ENU). He was inspired to use ENU by long-time
ORNL geneticists Liane and Bill Russell, who pioneered
its use for producing mouse mutants that could be
models for human disease, making ORNL a world
leader in this area. For example, recently, Rinchik was
pleasantly surprised to find a new mouse mutation that
could shed light on a human disease. Some of his
mutant mice were found to have seizures continuously
for a few weeks until they died.
These mice may be models for the human disorder
epilepsy. The mice are currently being characterized by
Lisa Webb, a graduate student working in Dabney Johnson's group at ORNL.
"Now that the DNA sequence of the mouse genome is being completed by the public
sector, we should be able to locate and identify a mutated gene more rapidly," Rinchik
says. "This can be done by comparing a DNA sequence with an altered base from a
mutant mouse with the normal DNA sequence from the mouse genome map."
Rinchik sees more collaborations in the
future between ORNL mouse geneticists
and human geneticists. There is already a
model for such interactions.
"In 1993, in a collaboration with Rob
Nicholls, a human geneticist who is now at
the University of Pennsylvania, we
identified the human version of the mouse
pink-eye dilution gene, which leads to a
pigmentation defect in mice," Rinchik says.
"Subsequently, human geneticists found
mutations in this gene to be responsible for
albinism in black Africans. They are born
with little pigment and are light-skinned as a
Culiat, meanwhile, is using newly available
molecular tools to explain a surprising
finding by retired biologist Walderico
Generoso. He found evidence suggesting that eggs from some female mouse strains can
correct damage in sperm from male mice exposed to a toxic chemical, reducing the
percentage of embryo deaths. By studying gene expression profiles, Culiat hopes to
determine whether these eggs repair damaged DNA or have an extracellular filter that
lets in normal sperm and keeps damaged sperm out. Indeed, the results could be
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