NU regents approve $5 million mouse house to grow research into how the gut affects health

LINCOLN — University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientists know the little guts of mice are similar enough to the human gut to yield valuable information.

The NU Board of Regents on Tuesday approved construction of a new $5 million facility where, among other things, mice will exist in a germ-free environment. The building will be privately funded and erected next door to the East Campus building in which the mice currently live.

Some of the regents couldn’t resist the urge to be witty. “And Mickey Mouse did not make those donations,” Regent Bob Phares of North Platte said of the privately funded project.

Regent Howard Hawks of Omaha referred to it as a “$5 million mouse dorm.”

The new building will be six times larger than the existing facility. UNL already is one of only about 20 research centers in the United States and Canada that has a large germ-free facility for experimental mice, said Amanda Ramer-Tait, an associate professor and director of UNL’s germ-free mouse program.

“We really have an opportunity to provide leadership in this field,” Ramer-Tait said in an interview Monday.

The research involves introducing specific bacteria to a mouse to observe the effect on the animal. The goal is to understand how certain foods, at the molecular level, affect the microorganisms in the intestinal tract and thus how they affect health.

Scientists increasingly understand that the content of the jungle, or “microbiome,” of trillions of tiny organisms in the human gut can have a huge influence on a person’s health. Adjusting that jungle through the use of specific foods and crops, including maize, wheat and soybeans, may help a person overcome obesity, diabetes and other diseases, or may prevent diseases.

The Raikes Foundation and Gates Foundation gave the research center $5 million two years ago. The UNL think tank’s name has been changed from the Gut Function Initiative to the Nebraska Food for Health Center.

UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green told the regents that his university is an international leader in microbiome research. “So it’s a big deal,” Green said.

The relationships involving the microorganisms in the gut, the food a person eats and that person’s health are a hot subject in science these days, said Andrew Benson, director of the Food for Health Center.

Benson said his growing team of about 22 faculty members, including some from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the NU Medical Center, is on the right track but has a long way to go.

“We’re still learning what is bad for the microbiome and what is good for the microbiome,” said Benson, who has a doctorate in microbiology. Benson said scientists want to build a list of which molecules in foods affect which microorganisms in the gut. “That’s the whole idea of the center.”

The germ-free facility for experimental mice is called a “gnotobiotic mouse vivarium.”

The $5 million facility will be bigger and better than UNL’s current mouse building, which is in the East Campus Life Sciences Annex and offers 1,911 gross square feet of space. The new building will provide 12,490 gross square feet.

Construction is expected to start next year and conclude in the summer of 2020.

The new building will house more mice (the current one holds about 650), more experiments and provide lab space, locker rooms for staffers, a conference room and other areas.

Ramer-Tait, who has a doctorate in immunology, said a mouse gut is not a replica of the human gut, but they do have some shared characteristics.

And when the center learns more from its mice, the scientists will test their findings on humans.