ELLSWORTH — Walking into a “pre-sterile area” in the new Jackson Lab building feels a little bit like entering the “vision room” in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: high ceilings, white walls, dangling cords and machines with conveyor belts, churning gears, even one resembling a miniature car wash.
But there are no gobstoppers here, and a golden ticket probably won’t be enough to get you through the door. Security is exceedingly tight, aimed at protecting trade secrets and the JAX Mice (they’re patented, or at least their genetic makeup is).
On a brief tour of the facility, a small group of media organizations trooped down long white hallways with exposed white and red pipes and slate blue doors. Apart from an eyewash station (for emergencies) tucked into a corner, the walls were spare and unadorned, the space unrecognizable from its former life as a home for impact drivers and potted plants.
The stringent security and obsession with sterility is for good reason: the environment of the animals must be rigorously controlled to avoid any kind of contamination. The very reason that mice make good research subjects — their biological similarity to humans — is also what makes it necessary to protect them. Mice are vulnerable to human diseases, such as Staphylococcus aureus and E. Coli, that are carried on human skin.
Mice have been used as research subjects since the early 1900s. They breed quickly, are small and easy to house and have an accelerated lifespan (one mouse year equals around 30 human years), which makes it easier to study an entire life cycle within two or three years.
Mice are also useful research subjects because they can be “humanized,” as Charles E. Hewett, the namesake of the new facility, explained in a recent blog post. By making a mouse that is genetically similar to humans, Hewett noted, “scientists seek to learn more about how we as humans develop, grow, and fend off disease.”
There are a variety of ways to do this. A mouse can be humanized, for instance, by replacing its immune system with a human immune system, allowing researchers “to explore how human immune systems attack a wide range of diseases,” said Hewett, ranging from polio to cancer and the Zika virus.
Or a mouse might be humanized by replacing its microbiome (the bacteria that colonize our gut) with a human one, offering insights into how to “fight infection, control our weight, hold off diabetes, digest food properly and much more,” Hewett wrote.
Another way to make a mouse more genetically similar to a human is using a relatively new gene-editing technology known as Crispr. The technique involves snipping DNA at a precise point, allowing researchers to alter a genome in much the same way a writer edits a sentence: deleting and adding elements wherever they choose.
The lab makes mice using Crispr for scientists who are looking into making malaria-carrying mosquitoes extinct and edit out genes linked to sudden infant death syndrome, among other breakthroughs. (If you can’t afford a JAX Mouse, a DIY-Crispr kit can be had online from companies such as The Odin for less than $200, allowing curious at-home researchers to make glowing yeast using jellyfish genes, among other novelties.)
Last week, lab officials led a small group of onlookers into the pre-sterile area (the only area open for observation). Inside, a machine for bottled water was encased in glass panels, and a worker in a green shirt fed clear, stout bottles onto a belt; it was the last time they would be touched by bare human hands. The bottles were capped, one by one, sterilized and dropped into a box, which rumbled off the assembly line and into the arms of another worker, who snapped on a lid and loaded them onto a cart, where they would be wheeled off to quench the thirst of the offstage stars of the show.