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Knoxville — Mutant mice may sound like the stuff of a science fiction spoof, but researchers at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center are jumping at the chance to develop and study rodents whose genetic abnormalities may help solve human nerve and brain disorders.

Dr. Dan Goldowitz, UT professor of anatomy and neurobiology, has received a $12.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to identify and develop families of mutant mice that carry genetic variations affecting the brain and nervous system.

“Scientists can introduce mutations into mice and conduct studies that are not possible on humans,” Goldowitz said. “Once a gene related to a mouse mutation is mapped, researchers can predict with accuracy the location of possible human disease genes.”

Because about 90 percent of the human and mouse genomes is identical, the research is expected to unlock the mysteries of human brain and nervous system disorders., he said. The emerging biomedical field is called functional genomics, because researchers do comparison studies across species to determine the functions of specific genes.

“One of the things we can do is look at neurological diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” Goldowitz said. “We can allow our mice to age and wait for the late onset of detectable changes produced by abnormal genes.”

The Tennessee Mouse Genome Consortium was formed in 1998 to pool the state’s resources and expertise for research purposes. The consortium makes use of a 50-year-old colony of mice that was developed to allow researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to study the genetic effects of ionizing radiation and toxic chemical compounds.

The University of Tennessee’s main and Memphis campuses are joined in the consortium by ORNL, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the University of Memphis, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Meharry Medical College and East Tennessee State University.