Rodent Run

Four little DNA-modified rats go to market

Kay Salem

Kay Salem

Kay Salem

Kay Salem

Kay Salem

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Forgive the literary reference. I’m such a smart little Dickens that I just can’t help it. I’m a rat—a real one, not some pinstriped poseur with a law degree. Call me Ike. My distinguished scientist friends do.

Okay, they’re not so friendly anymore. Yesterday, those overeducated data junkies chased me down like an animal in the street, stuffed me into a plastic soda cup, and rudely locked me up in this maximum-security laboratory cage. I mean, really, the indignity of it all. Now, those devious ciphers are forcing me to recount my story, the whole sordid affair, to a video camera. Meanwhile, they nervously stare at me from behind protective glass, like I’m a furry little velociraptor with a craving for the flesh of white-coated milquetoasts.

Am I really so scary? I’m more to be pitied than feared, dear people. I’m just a humble rodent who speaks the King’s English, reads the classics, remembers everything I see and hear, and learns faster than an MIT freshman pumped up on Mountain Dew and lattes for an all-nighter.

I didn’t start out this way, mind you. I used to eat the vilest sorts of refuse, procreate at all hours, sniff rump, and otherwise behave like a normal rat. Then, the scientists here at DNAttitudes, Inc., nurtured my nature, so to speak. They gerrymandered my genes into a configuration that turned me into an intellectual heavyweight, a synapse-stuffed savant, and a real wise guy.

Suddenly, I felt compelled to scuttle into the CEO’s library at all hours and read great literature—James Joyce’s Ulysses, Dennis Miller’s Rants, Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese?—total mind-benders.

At the same time, I noticed that my fellow lab rats were undergoing profound changes of their own.

Consider Crash, my close friend and former cohort in dumpster diving. A little DNA snip here, a tiny telomere clip there, and Crash literally felt no pain. The pain depots in his brain just stopped taking deliveries.

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune now bring nary a tear to his eyes, even if they bloody his muzzle. I had to sneak out of my cage late one night and use some leftover fiberglass and a Bunsen burner to make him his own little crash helmet, since he now loves to run headlong into anything in his way, like walls and lab technicians.

As Crash puts it, “Dude, head-banging rules, maze-running drools.” He may have lost a few more genes than the scientists realized.

Then, there’s Lana. She’s always been fun, for a rat. If someone leaves a radio on in the lab overnight, she can really shake her booty and leave a minimum of mess behind. She’s a Norwegian ridgeback . . . . Grrrrrr.

Ahem. At any rate, the scientists tidied up Lana’s chromosomes for some alcoholism experiments. Now, she sits under her beverage dispenser, presses the reward bar, and slurps down alcohol solution like there’s no tomorrow. If she gets water instead—oh, such language, such spitting. When the happy juice starts flowing again, she waves a little forepaw in circles and shouts, “Who let the dogs out? Woof, Woof!” It’s as if she were just another sodden football fan going bonkers after her favorite team scored a touchdown.

Ah, and I can’t forget Erskine. I can’t forget anything, of course, heh, heh. No brag, just fact.

Not a single strand of hair graces Erskine’s body. The scientists wanted to study genes responsible for hair growth, but poor old Ersk ended up naked as a mole rat. Tough break. To make matters worse, his personality changed. He’s now extremely self-conscious and reacts quite poorly to comments about his appearance. He’ll binge-and-purge on food pellets for days if Lana hurls a jesting insult at him. Her recent bons mots include, “Are those love handles, or are you growing wings?”

But Ersk, that old smoothie, had more than pale pink skin up his pudgy sleeve. He inspired the strange escape that led to our unfortunate incarceration.

I suppose I should first explain my Dickensian reference. It was the best of times here at DNAttitudes, Inc., shortly after I had my wits genetically blitzed. The scientist-entrepreneurs who run the place got stormed by slick private investors and pharmaceutical company representatives who saw gold in them thar pills. Do I need to spell it out for you? Once the researchers pluck the chemical fruits of my genes, it’s a short hop to mass production of SmarTabs, Intellicaps, BrainPoppers, or whatever brand name the marketing guys fancy.

Well, the bucks started flying in, let me tell you. We rodents got plenty of treats, special play areas, a cushioned running wheel—a really enriched environment.

Then came the worst of times. The marketeers decided to organize a focus group and explore the inner worlds of their targeted drug buyers—er, I mean potential consumers of cognition-enhancing substances. It quickly became clear that people will line up around the block for pills that make them feel good, but they’ll run screaming into the pits of Hell rather than take one that makes them think harder. Hey, buddy, want to buy a pill that gives you so much mental power you’ll never forget this year’s tax audit, your root canal surgery last spring, and the Yankees winning three straight World Series? How about swallowing a little brain booster that causes you to chuck your PlayStation2 and join a weekend discussion group on the U.S. domestic regulatory ramifications of Swedish economic policy?

I was as worthless as a double major in art history and English. After the focus group debacle, all of us rodents got moved to a closet-size room with no perks.

Crash took to bouncing on his head like a little pogo stick. Lana started mumbling to herself about how no one makes a good martini anymore. Ersk, who had begun to groom himself an awful lot for a hairless rat, saw me sulking and shuffled over to cheer me up.

“Come on, Ike, whiskers up. The humans will find something of value in one of us. Take Crash. Well, maybe not. He’s a poster rodent for reckless abandon, and there’s no shortage of that. Perhaps Lana’s not a DNA gold mine either. She spews venom when she’s not, you know, spewing. And I, well, I . . . .”

“You’re the answer, Ersk!” It was so simple. Whatever strange, furless dance Ersk’s DNA was doing, it had the makings of a sales bonanza. Imagine, ladies, a once-a-month prescription medication that gets rid of unwanted hair. No more shaving, no more wax treatments, just swallow a little pink pill for perpetually smooth and silky epidermis. Okay, European sales might lag, but we’re talking mass U.S. appeal.

And how about all those male athletes, actors, and musicians who shave their heads as a fashion statement? Just sip a little Erskine Formula 44 every day to keep the hair away. You deserve stubblefree scalps, you big lugs.

I leveled with Ersk. “The honchos here at DNAttitudes, Inc., will realize soon enough that you’re their meal ticket. I’m afraid we can’t trust them anymore, not after they took away the cushioned running wheel. We need advice from a higher power.”

“A higher power? Rodents don’t have higher powers.”

“You let me worry about that, Ersk. Let’s tell the others. Tonight, we bust out of this gene mill.”

Only a few whitecoats roamed the halls of DNAttitudes, Inc., once the sun set. This always happens when a Star Trek convention comes to town.

I pushed open the latch on the cage door. We slinked out and lined up side-by-side on the edge of the table. Noses twitching with anticipation, we waited. As soon as someone opened the door, we’d make a break for it. All we had to do was get outside and cross the street. From the windowsill I’d seen the big building over there. A picture of a huge rat hangs over the door and smiles down at the humans, with a delicious hint of menace on his face. Yet people constantly go in and out. I know that honkin’ big rat can help us.

The doorknob started to move. A crack of light slowly expanded and filled the room. It was Dr. Hardwire, the executive vice president of research operations and offshore investing. He had his Spock ears on, so he must have been making a final lab check before leaving for the convention.

“Now!” I yelled. We jumped off the table and hit the linoleum slipping and sliding, moving as fast as possible toward the doorway. Lana bumped into Ersk and screeched, “Hey, watch it, you overgrown dumpling!” That alerted Dr. Hardwire, who stuck his penny-loafered foot in front of our escape route.

We stopped in our tracks. “Dude, outta my way,” whispered Crash. He had an intense look of concentration on his face, like in the old days when he smelled day-old chicken fingers at the bottom of a dumpster. Head down and legs pumping, Crash accelerated helmet first into Dr. Hardwire’s shoe.

“Owwww!” Dr. Hardwire limped into the shadows. We scrabbled into the hallway and headed down the corridor toward the parking lot. Footsteps pounded behind us, and I heard someone yell, “Come back, you dirty rats!” At that moment, I stepped onto the sensor mat in front of the automatic sliding doors. They didn’t open. Then, Crash rolled onto the mat. Nothing. Lana careened onto the rubbery surface. No good. Finally, Ersk belly-flopped onto the mat.

That gave us the weight we needed. The doors parted and we scooted outside. I could see the big rat gleaming across the street for just an instant. Then, a wild-eyed dog’s face spread across my field of vision. The creature was off its leash and yapping at us, quivering with the rage of an animal unfettered by input from actual brain cells.

What now? I clearly couldn’t reason with this thing. Fortunately, Lana had taken a few nips to fortify herself for the escape. She let out a lusty, “WOOF! WOOF!” Lassie to the rescue. The barking beast tilted its head, whimpered, and scampered away. Who let the dogs out, indeed.

We moved to the sidewalk. The cars looked so much bigger and faster here than from the laboratory windowsill. “How are we going to get across this road without going splat?” whimpered Ersk.

I’d never seen Ersk like this. He was shivering. His pupils were dilated. His hairless body, usually a soft pink hue, now shined bright red. Something in his designer genes caused him to react to panic by glowing like a . . . stoplight.

Cars screeched to a halt. With Ersk in the lead, the rest of us followed the bouncing traffic signal across the street and up to the big rat’s building. The door swung open and we dashed inside.

“That’s him!” I exclaimed. A 6-foot-tall rat walked toward us on his hind legs.

“Oh, please help us, sir,” I said to this giant among rats. “We may not look impressive, but we’re carrying valuable genetic cargo. DNAttitudes, Inc., wants to copyright our chromosomes and sell us to the highest bidder, but we want a piece of the action. We need a liaison we can trust. How about it, sir? Do you know a good lawyer? How does a 10 percent cut sound to you?”

The rat looked at me with vacant eyes. His lips didn’t move, but he spoke in a high-pitched, nasal tone. “Hi! Welcome to Chuck E. Cheese, boys and girls. The game room is to your right, or you can start out with pizza. Is this somebody’s birthday?”

After that awkward introduction, the situation deteriorated rapidly. Crash headed for the game room, where he and a throng of young boys rammed into video-game terminals. Lana inspected the soft drink machines and started pushing the metal bars that open the spouts. That got a few of the employees upset. I heard Lana spitting and yelling, “These daiquiris suck! Who’s in charge here?” Two gap-toothed boys caught sight of Ersk and started chasing him from room to room.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, Dr. Hardwire burst through the door with one of the nighttime janitors at DNAttitudes, Inc. I tried to hide, but the jig was up. Chuck E. Cheese squealed on us.

My companions and I were unceremoniously shoved into soda cups and trundled back across the street into maximum security.

Crash, Lana, and Ersk must be in separate rooms now. It’s okay, though. As Charles Dickens might say, I have great expectations for plan B. If Chuck E. Cheese won’t help us market our DNA, we’ll do it ourselves. I’ll bust out of this birdcage tonight and round up my friends. Yeah, we’ll use the video camera and a computer to set up a live feed on our own Web site. We’ll call it eRat. Big spenders with an eye for profit-making vermin can bid on our genetic goods.

Talk about the best of times—we’ll be the world’s first rodentrepreneurs.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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