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Scientists make a library of genetic variations in mice

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Researchers have cataloged millions of genetic differences between 17 strains of mice. The library will help speed up research and transform our understanding of human health.

Life just got easier for genetic researchers.

Scientists have created a catalog of genetic variations in mice. Instead of having to breed and test real mice for relevant genetic mutations, researchers can now use their computer mouse to scan for relevant genetic mutations. With genetic information at their fingertips, researchers will require less real mice in the laboratory.

Based on genome sequences of 17 inbred strains of laboratory mice, the library adds 10 times as many variants than were previously known. The catalog consists of 56.7 million unique sites of variation between strains as well as markers for diseases like diabetes and heart disease. The improved data will help researchers understand how genes function and see why some genes are more likely to cause an onset of certain diseases.

The results were published in two papers in Nature.

"Until now, when we, and others, have tried to find the genes involved in complex traits in the mouse. That's including disease models, like depression and anxiety. It's been a huge amount of work to trawl through each region of the genome that we think is involved," said Oxford geneticist Jonathan Flint.

The mutations are basically available on an Internet browser.

"The availability of a catalog revolutionizes this process. It accelerates our research tremendously. The catalog of variation is a first step on path from knowing what a genome is, to working out what it does," Flint said.

The library will save a lot of time and energy.

"We are interested and trying to find causes of anxiety and depression. What makes one mouse more anxious? We've been able to find out what all the variants are," Flint said.

Now that researchers know where the variants are, they can better identify what they do and possibly explain the phenotypic differences between the strains of mice.

"In some cases it has taken 40 years - an entire working life - to pin down a gene in a mouse model that is associated with a human disease, looking for the cause," Thomas Keane, an author on one of two papers published this week in Nature, said in a statement. "Now with our catalog of variants the analysis of these mice is breathtakingly fast."

The library may lead to the sequencing of hundreds of mouse strains and possibly transform our understanding of human health. From real mice to digital mice, fundamental questions about how variation relates to gene function may soon be answered.

Photo: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure