AFRMA Show Orange County Fair Best AOCP, Best Standard, Blue Splashed "KK2125-2" owned and bred by Karen Robbins.
Photo by Craig Robbins
One year ago this month, Jennifer Hipsley brought seven of her best mice to the East Coast Mouse Association's first mouse show in Lynchburg, Va. Her mice had an array of colorful coats, including splashes of chocolate, or black with striped patches. Some were sleek and glossy, one completely hairless. She even brought a baby mouse to enter into the show's "kitten" class, with large ears and white and chocolate-splashed fur. Nearly 100 mice were picked up, petted, and examined as part of the judging process that day. By the end of it, Hipsley walked away with five awards, including a best in show for her chocolate-colored baby mouse. She's one of a select group of mouse fanciers, people who recreationally breed mice for certain traits-an unusual hobby, yes, but one that gave birth to science's first line of inbred mice.
Mouse fanciers have been around for more than 300 years, by some accounts, with 18th century Japanese breeders actively breeding mice for black spots or albino markings. The oldest mouse fancier's club is certainly the National Mouse Club in the United Kingdom, which was established in 1895 and currently supports more than a dozen mouse shows per year. In addition to color and size, mouse fanciers breed their mice for temperament, intelligence, and even affection.
One of the most famous American breeders was Abbie Lathrop, a former school teacher, who by 1913 had more than 10,000 mice living and breeding on her Massachusetts farm. After she found a tumor on one of her mice, she developed an interest in cancer research. She collaborated on a handful of papers with University of Pennsylvania cancer researcher Leo Loeb to investigate the occurrence of murine breast cancer. Some of those studies showed that mammary tumors varied in different mouse families, and pregnancy increased the frequency of breast cancer, among other findings (J Cancer Res, 1:1-19, 1916).
When using mice for research really began to catch on, Lathrop started taking mouse orders from Harvard University zoologist William Castle. One of his students, Clarence Cook Little, latched onto an idea that he thought would help biomedical research. "Little was the first to recognize the value of inbreeding," says Muriel Davisson, professor at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. "The first mouse line he made was from [Lathrop's] mice, called C57 Black." The mouse's stark black coat could be easily sorted from its brown littermates and bred with other black mice. Nearly a dozen sub-strains of the C57 Black line were created in the years following Little's work. The mice often have developmental eye problems; scientists now use the line as a model for ocular disorders and fetal alcohol syndrome.
In 1929, Little used funds from auto industry tycoons Edsel Ford and Roscoe Jackson to open the Jackson Laboratory as a center for studying genetics and cancer in inbred mice. Over the following decades, Jackson scientists developed hundreds of new strains of mice. Today the Jackson Laboratory (JAX) is the largest seller of research mice in the world, distributing about 2.5 million each year among more than 4,000 distinct varieties-many of whose ancestors were the prized possessions of mice fanciers.
Although she's a relative newcomer, only professionally breeding out of her Maryland home for about three years, Hipsley has upwards of 150 mice of varying coats, colors, and temperaments. She got into the hobby when a professional breeder gave her the gift of a fawn-colored long-haired ("Angora" class) mouse that she fell in love with. Now, she has 35 of her own transgenic mice that possess a unique gene that renders them tri-color. For Hipsley, the genes are important, just as they are to researchers. "It's difficult to make them look the way you want them to look."