MapQuest for the mouse spinal cord

An online atlas of the mouse spinal cord points researchers toward places where genes are active

Genetics researchers are showing a little backbone these days.

SPINE GENES From the Allen Brain Institute’s new mouse spinal cord atlas, which pinpoints the activity of genes within the terrain of the mouse’s nervous tissue. Allen Brain Institute

The Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle launched its online atlas of the mouse spinal cord July 16. The initial release includes 4,000 sets of digital images of spinal cords from adult and juvenile mice. The pictures show where in the spinal cord 2,000 different genes are active. By the end of the year, data for 20,000 genes will be available, says Allan Jones, chief scientific officer for the nonprofit research organization.

When and where genes are active in the spinal cord guides development. It can also make a difference in passing along signals from brain to body. The Allen Institute’s atlas won’t contain information about what all of the genes are doing in the spinal cord. But the atlas will give scientists a starting place for investigations of the various gene functions.

Scientists in academia and industry already use the institute’s mouse brain atlas daily, Jones says. About 10,000 scientists log on to use the brain atlas every month, and an average of 1,000 people used it each day in June.

The project to map gene activity in the mouse brain cost $41 million and took three years to complete, but about half of the money was spent on infrastructure, he says.

That meant that the spinal cord project, launched in January, could proceed much faster and, in fact, is slated to be complete in early 2009.

Such data are a valuable resource for scientists, Jones says. “It saves people a week or a month here and there in their own research,” which could mean faster progress in learning how to heal spinal cord injuries or cure diseases.

Researchers will use the data to learn more about how the spinal cord develops and how genes implicated in diseases such as multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis should normally function. An international group of donors, including organizations focused on research into spinal cord injury and disease as well as a pharmaceutical company, funded the endeavor.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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