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Something to Gnaw On

October 06, 2003

Speaking of Washington, there's been noteworthy news recently on the rodent front. You may have thought, listening to TV news anchors, that cloners had pretty well figured out the science of replicating identical members of a species from genetic material. They have, in fact, succeeded in producing cloned sheep, mice, pigs, a cow, a cat, a horse and a mule. TV weather forecasters have proven difficult to clone because the false-jolliness gene is hard to replicate.

So you may have been unaware, especially if you keep a garden compost pile out back, that the world had a shortage of rats. And that scientists have been desperately trying to clone them in labs in Missouri and France. Growing more rats might strike some as akin to developing a new strain of herpes, a potentially interesting project on paper, but why? The rat group spent years on 875 unsuccessful tries before successfully cloning Ralph and three other rats.

In fact, Ralph is coming up on his first birthday next month. For years to come, thousands of identi-Ralphs (no relation to the grocery store family) will be bled, medicated and studied for the medical benefit of humans.

Things could have evolved very differently and led to historical role reversals, according to a new discovery in Venezuela. There, more scientists (they're everywhere too, aren't they?) found complete, 6-million-year-old fossils of rats the size of a Buick (without the grille). These rats weighed 1,500 pounds. Imagine running into one of them on a sleepy late-night foray to the kitchen. So that's why the dog was barking! Think of the trap you'd need behind the refrigerator to catch those guys, with 12 pounds of cheese for bait.

These ancient rats were like buffalo, only smart and with longer, well, ratty tails. They apparently survived on grass (remember, this is before garages and garbage cans with lids that never properly fit). And these immense creatures lived in large herds pretty much anywhere they wanted along the edge of immense marshes.

It was good to be big in ye olde wild. Trouble was, there were 9-foot birds back then who liked eating flesh and 30-foot alligators with similar menu tastes. So without the modern advantage of an Atkins diet, these obese rats didn't evolve quickly enough into the speedier critters of today. Exit 1,500-pound rats.

Despite that evolutionary setback, other scientists say, of the 4,600 mammal species alive today, 2,600 are rodents -- 56%! Maybe the lab guys should get to work cloning 9-foot birds and 30-foot alligators.

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