Tough on Rats

Parachute Rat by Banksy - before its destruction by the Local Authorities

“Parachute Rat” by British artist, Banksy – before its destruction by the Local Authorities (Photo ABC TV)

In recent news releases, some in the science community hailed it as building a better rat, but it’s doubtful that the animals who’ve been specially bred with pathologies seen in Alzheimer’s disease, would agree – if they had a voice…….

Tough on Rats

While it’s not the Year of the Rat, it’s still worth reflecting that for western cultures at least, few creatures carry the burden of the past as heavily as the much maligned rat.  For most of our recorded history, the black rat (Ratus ratus) and his cousin the brown rat (Ratus Norvegicus) have been cursed with an unenviable family history. Even the lowly serpent has managed to maintain a better reputation.

The asp’s encounter with that Egyptian celebrity, Cleopatra of Alexandria, ensured the species (most likely the Egyptian Cobra – Naga haje) a modicum of kudos.  It’s hard to imagine Cleopatra relying on a rat bite to end it all, though the ubiquitous rodent’s association with bubonic plague and typhus, suggests that it may have been equally effective. Valiant attempts by Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows) to rehabilitate the uncharacteristically obsequious Ratty as one of Mr. Toad’s guardians of good behaviour, largely came to nought.

Well, how times are changing.  Who could have guessed that the lead character in the sweep of the Black Death (Yersinia pestis) across medieval Europe, once held responsible for the deaths of millions, could be anything but a monster.  It’s worth noting that the plague was as much a pandemic for the rats as it was for humanity. And recently, some researchers have even suggested that rats may have been wrongly accused.

Now, specially bred brown rats including Wistar rats (derived from an albino strain), as well as transgenic and, more recently, cloned varieties are playing a central role across the spectrum of medical, dental and biological research.  These remarkably adaptable animals are only now revealing to psychologists extraordinary levels of cognitive process.  Just how smart rats are will come as little surprise to either pet owners or laboratory researchers who are well aware of how sociable and intelligent that domesticated rats can be, and how easy they are to train.

At the frontiers of medical science, the humble rat continues to be the unsung hero in an astonishing number of breakthrough developments.  They are the foot soldiers in research fields as diverse as dentistry (where rats with orthodontic braces are teaching researchers about the efficacy of fluoride treatments), and drug and addiction studies (where researchers study the animal’s responses two of western societies most potent, but legal drugs, alcohol and nicotine).

Few fields of medical research pursued today could make headway without the services of these model organisms.  Detailed studies of rats tell us much about diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimers and epilepsy.  In these specially bred strains, the physiology of this diminutive creature can be used as a proxy for humans.  As such, the rat is a key player in guiding the safe development of new drugs and treatments in human medicine. What is more important, the results of this research contribute to a growing understanding of the physical and chemical processes of our own bodies.

Hardly a weathervane for public opinion, Hollywood once held rats in little regard. In the 1971 thriller, Willard, the bad-ass rats were more trouble than an LA street gang. But the tide began to turn in 2007 when, though not entirely forgiven, the film Ratatouille (PIXAR, 2007) gave the little guy the lead role.  More recently, the exquisite French film, Ernest et Celeste (2012) introduced the endearing little mouse, Celeste, to filmgoers.

The horse has received many accolades for its role in opening up the New World to the dubious benefits of colonisation. Perhaps it’s time to let the public in on the secret most scientists already know – that this diminutive creature, the rat, makes an extraordinary contribution to our health and well-being.  And yet, I still wonder about the things we do to them…..


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