Rats have long been used in medical research and were the first mammals used in lab experiments, hence the familiar term for lab workers, “lab rat”. While some research is simply behavioral, much is biomedical, nutritional, & genomic. In my house I have a shrine to the white rat. As a Medical Laboratory Scientist, I feel the heavy burden of what science has done to rats & mice and I like to honor their unwitting sacrifice. I often wonder if our generalized disgust of rats is based on the familiar story of dirty rats spreading the plague throughout Europe and killing 50 million people. Is this mass genocide the reason we decided to make the rat clan suffer in the name of science? Imagine with me if you will, cages upon cages of white rats in a research lab. Now switch that image to cages upon cages of gerbils. Yeah, that’s right, turns out we may have been wrong about Mr. Ratty, as current evidence is suggesting it was actually Asian gerbils that spread the plaque. Oops!
Rats have an excellent sense of smell. Rats in Africa are trained to sniff out landmines as well as tuberculosis (TB) in sputum specimens. As far as the landmines go, it take 9 months to a year to train the rats at a cost of about $6700, half the cost of training a dog. The rats are easier to transport & maintain than dogs. They are local to the area where they work & their light weight doesn’t trip the landmines as a dog’s would. They clear 200 square feet an hour compared to 50 hours done manually by man. As for TB detection, the rat can evaluate 40 samples in 7 minutes. As one who has read TB smears, rats can get through them quicker than I can; 40 samples would take me all day and I’d be mighty worn out after that many. I, for one, am more than happy to let that part of my job go to the rats!
Future projects include training rats to sniff out illegal smuggling of wildlife & timber. Go Rats!
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Seppa, N (2010). Giant rats detect tuberculosis. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/article/giant-rats-detect-tuberculosis
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