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  • Writer's pictureSociety of Bioethics and Medicine

What about the rats?

Written by Pooja Suganthan

Edited by Anling Chen

Rats are more similar to humans than we think. Rats can laugh, replay memories, and barter. They can even feel empathy and regret- so why are we so willing to subject them and other rodents, as test models for science without a second thought?

For starters, according to the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR), "Researchers study rats and mice because they are very similar to people genetically. About 95 percent of all lab animals are rats and mice bred specifically for research." Mice and humans have very similar genomes- just about every gene found in one species has a closely related counterpart in the other. 4,000 genes have been studied between both species and fewer than 10 do not have a related counterpart in the other species.

Other mammals also share similar genomes to humans, but mouse and rat models are preferred because of their ease of maintenance, low costs, and short life cycles. Researchers can also breed mice to produce offspring with desired genotypes and control the rodents’ housing conditions to avoid pathogens and environmental effects.

In the past, primate research has provided significant contributions to research. For example, the Harry Harlow’s Wire Surrogate Mother experiment (1958) demonstrated the influence of social relationships and caregiver-infant bonds during early development. The experimental primates were kept in isolated conditions and lacked maternal attention. Even though Harlow claimed that monkeys are “self-conscious, emotionally complex, intentional, and capable of substantial levels of suffering,” he was permitted to continue testing them in forced, vile conditions. Now, we have stricter regulations on the treatment of non-human primates during research including the type of study, housing conditions, and their psychosocial well-being.

Some argue that we are now treating rodents the same way that we once treated non-human primates. The difference in treatment between the two species results from one main reason: human bias. We view non-human primates as more human-like, while rodents have a negative connotation. We often associate rodents as pests, so we may not feel as uncomfortable using rodents for research purposes.

Ideally, we should strive to reduce unnecessary harm to animal models in research, but with our current scientific advancements, it is impossible to outlaw animal experimentation altogether. It is not yet possible to completely replace animal models with computer models and cell cultures. These options are helpful to reduce the quantity of animals used in research, but they are limited because we cannot duplicate a living system with a computer or cell culture. Rats and mice are, and should continue to be the preferred animal testing model, because they resemble human physiology and anatomy, have a manipulative genome, and are easy to replenish.


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