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This Russian Monument Honors the Humble Lab Mouse

A peculiar Russian monument praises the scientific achievements of a tiny mammal

A Russian scientific institute unveiled a statue in 2013 to an unsung hero of science - the lab mouse (Irina Gelbukh / Wikimedia)
smithsonian.com

As debates have erupted in the past week over Confederate monuments in the United States, a strange and obscure monument to the humble laboratory mouse has gained prominence on the internet thanks to a now viral tweet from user rubot.

Unveiled in 2013 in Novosibirsk in southwestern Siberia, the quirky statue depicts an anthropomorphic mouse as an elderly woman, complete with glasses balanced atop its nose. Emerging from two knitting needles in its hands is the recognizable double-helix of a strand of DNA.

The statue stands on the grounds of Novosibirsk's Institute of Cytology and Genetics, the Russian magazine Sib.fm reported upon its unveiling, and was designed to honor the important role mice have played in science—from studying disease to developing medications. The institute collected donations to fund the statue and its surrounding park, which cost roughly $50,000 (1.7 million rubles) at the time.

Mice have lived alongside humans for an estimated 15,000 years, and are often used as a simple and fast-growing analogue to the human body for studies on everything from cancer to the effects of space travel. Though some researchers have recently raised questions about the accuracy of this human-mouse comparisons, these tiny creatures remain one of the go-to animals for biomedical researchers around the world. And the statue was raised in honor of this (sometimes maligned) relationship.

"It combines both the image of a laboratory mouse and a scientist, because they are connected to each other and serve one cause," sculptor Andrei Kharkevich told Sib.fm about his design. "The mouse is imprinted at the time of scientific discovery."

Founded in 1957, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics was the first arm of the Russian Academy of Sciences devoted to the study of genetics, established just four years after the discovery of DNA by British scientists James Watson and Francis Crick.

The most notable research to come out of the institute in its 60 years was a long-running study on animal domestication, reported Maggie Koerth-Baker in 2014 for BoingBoing. Researchers in the program, started by Soviet geneticist Dmitry Belyaev, carefully bred more than 40 generations of  wild silver foxes, and documented the extensive physical changes the animals experienced as each generation grew increasingly friendly and playful toward humans. The experiment is still ongoing today, and some of the domesticated foxes are sold as sought-after pets to help fund the research. Perhaps a monument to the fox will one day join the knitting mouse.

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