Debris Cleared, Jackson Begins Recovery From Fire

When fire swept through part of a mouse-breeding building at the Jackson Laboratory on May 10, there wasn't enough time for fear. 

Judy Mathewson
Jun 25, 1989

BAR HARBOR, MAINE—When fire swept through part of a mouse-breeding building at the Jackson Laboratory on May 10, there wasn't enough time for fear. There was only time to react, says Philip Standel, who oversees Jackson's famous program for breeding laboratory mice in large numbers and shipping them to researchers all over the world.

Trapped in each of the 15 rooms of the building's two wings, in cages stacked in multitiered shelves, were at least 8,000 breeding pairs of mice and their infant offspring. Their genetic profiles made them vital to experiments conducted by scientists around the world (The Scientist, July 11, 1988, page 1).

As firefighters battled the blaze, Standel and other lab employees formed a human chain, passing cages hand to hand out of the building. "After about an hour, the fire marshal told us, 'That's it, no more,' because it was no longer safe," recalls Standel....

Geneticist Larry Mobraaten was in another building nearby when the fire erupted. Mobraaten is the guardian of the wide variety of genetic types, which makes Jackson, with three-quarters of all known mouse varieties, the world's preeminent mouse supplier for research.

When he looked out a window and saw the smoke and flames, he feared the worst: The burning building housed not only the "production" mice bred for distribution, but also half of the lab's more than 1,000 "foundation" mouse strains. These mice bear the genes from which the production mice are derived. The other half of the foundation population was in another building a mile away.

So instead of hurrying toward the burning building, Mobraaten ran the other way, down the hall to his office. "I started digging up records to see which buildings our different strains are located in and to see which are backed up with frozen embryos in the place where we store them in New Jersey."

The fire, caused by a construction accident, left five men injured, one of them seriously, and an estimated 350,000 dead mice. It also destroyed an entire wing of the building known at Jackson as Morrell Park, with up to $50 million in projected losses, including $25 million in uninsured damages. Where an 11-room wing of the T-shaped Morrell Park building once stood, a vacant lot now stares up at the Maine sky.

"It was a hell of a way to begin a new job," says geneticist Kenneth Paigen, who at the time of the fire was preparing to shoulder his responsibilities as the new director of the 60-year-old lab. While none of the lab's 125 scientific and professional staff lost positions, Paigen was forced to lay off 60 technicians.

Nevertheless, only a few very busy weeks after the fire, Jackson officials look on to the bright side. "The situation looks a lot better today than it did the first day after the fire," says Standel. About 300,000 mice, or nearly 50% of the production stocks, were either evacuated or housed in other buildings on the laboratory's 93 acres at the time of the fire. "But if we'd lost that other 50%, that could have set us back several years." None of the foundation stock was lost.

For many researchers, the loss of the production mice means problems. Paigen estimates that in the United States alone, $600 to $700 million dollars' worth of basic academic biological research-and $300 to $400 million dollars' worth of commercial research-has been jeopardized by the fire.

In an effort to keep these projects going, some researchers have decided to try breeding their own mice. "We're starting to, but it's an expensive proposition," says Ralph Charlwood, assistant director for animal care at Harvard Medical School, which usually orders between 40,000 and 50,000 mice every year, Other scientists are looking for alternative suppliers. "The question of where else people can go for the more exotic strains of mice they need is not going to be an easy one to answer," says Andrea Cohen, of the National Academy of Science's Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources in Washington, D.C., which within a week of the fire had fielded approximately 120 inquiries. While other mice suppliers actually sell more mice than Jackson does, nobody comes close to having its diversity and number of strains.

Jackson is now taking orders for the less-depleted strains and expects that a few strains will be ready for shipping by the end of this month. Within 18 to 24 months it hopes to be back to its pre-fire level of production and shipping.

Lab officials have already assessed which strains are worse off. Mobraaten has been sending breeding pairs from his foundation stocks to especially desperate scientists. For example, a strain known as C57BL/6J-ob, used by diabetes researchers, will be in short supply until more are bred from the foundation stock.

Bad as the situation is, everyone at the labs agrees that the consequences of the fire would have been much worse were it not for precautions instituted after a previous fire, in 1947, destroyed the laboratory's only existing building and wiped out all of the mouse strains. Among the precautions installed to protect the foundation stock when the building was constructed in 1960 was a firewall, which gave mice evacuators the time they needed. Elsewhere on the campus, Jackson has a frozen embryo backup for 600 strains, with more being added. And 150 frozen embryos have been deposited in an off-site facility in Camden, N.J.

But the lesson from this fire, everyone agrees, is that still more precautions and redundancy are needed. "We're not going to rebuild Morrell Park the way it was in 1960," says Standel. "We'll employ the concept of modularity so that in the unlikely event of another fire, we'll have absolute assurance that we won't risk losing the stock, or the things we need to maintain them."

In the meantime, Jackson must evaluate the many offers it has received from other institutions willing to breed Jackson mice. "The difficulty is in finding a place that's big enough, with enough facilities, a place where we would be comfortable managing from a distance," says Standel, who, because of the fire, has no office in which to mull over his options. In early June Jackson was leaning toward doing all the production breeding on-site, in prefabricated buildings.

Standel's biggest headache these days is seeing that the surviving mice are maintained in the germ-free conditions necessary to ensure their health, and thus the consistency of the samples they supply to researchers. Much of the expensive high-tech equipment that makes this possible was destroyed in the fire. Now shifts of workers use Jackson's remaining equipment around the clock to sterilize pans of food, litter trays, and other items destined to come in contact with the mice.

Jackson's veterinarians are busy too, examining random specimens of the survivors for signs of germs. Because the mice were exposed to the open air, they will only be used for breeding purposes, and only the offspring of those with clean bills of health will be sold.

"One day," Standel says. "I'll be able to look back and know we did a good job of resupplying scientists with our mice as fast as possibly could be done, but I must say I can hardly wait for that day to be here."

Judy Mathewson is a freelance writer based in Hallowell, Maine.