There are 500 animals studied so far in the mouse lemur project, a collaboration that aims to parse the genetics of this diminutive, prosimian primate. It is the brainchild of Stanford biochemist Mark Krasnow.

Because all 24 species of mouse lemurs look similar, the most reliable way for scientists to tell them apart is through genetic testing. (Scientists have recently identified three new species of mouse lemurs in Madagascar.)

They are quite possibly the answer to medical researchers' dreams.

This world's smallest primate may soon replace fruit flies, worms, and even mice as the primary lab animal for scientific research.

According to Stanford University School of Medicine researchers, they have the potential to serve as an ideal model for a wide range of primate biology, behavior, and medicine, including cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Mice, fruit flies, and worms as genetic models have routinely failed to mimic many aspects of primate biology, including many human diseases, said Mark Krasnow, MD, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry.

Krasnow and his colleagues turned to the mouse lemur and began conducting detailed physiologic and genetic studies on them.

It was reported that they already have identified more than 20 individual lemurs with unique genetic traits, including obesity, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, cardiac arrhythmias, progressive eye disease and motor and personality disorders.

The researchers hope it will soon become a genetic model organism that will help us better understand many aspects of primate biology, behavior, and health, including lemur and human diseases.

According to the June issue of GENETICS, Ezran et al.'s genetic research on these primates began as a project for three high school laboratory interns to find an appropriate model organism for primate genetics.

Mouse lemurs are more human than mice, as genetic research on mice has led to countless important discoveries, but their physiology and behavior differ in many ways from that of humans and other primates. They potentially rival the common laboratory mouse Mus musculus, at least for certain questions.

Mice, fruit flies, and worms were the prototypical lab specimen because they were inexpensive to maintain, easy to study, and reproduced quickly enough to offer researchers a constant stream of samples. According to Krasnow, MD, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, the genetic makeup of the 3 animals hasn't been a close enough match to humans to work well for the studies today's researchers need to conduct.

Krasnow's project is studying a large population of grey and brown mouse lemurs - Microcebus murinus and Microcebus rufus, respectively - in the wild to work out how their genes link to differences in biology, health, and behavior.

Other than being closely related to humans, they still have many of the advantages of mice in terms of small size, rapid reproduction, and relatively large litters.

These researchers hope that continued study of these abundant primates could lead to a better understanding, and possibly better treatments, of these and other conditions in lemurs and humans.

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