GENEVA - The female mice are chasing the males around the cage; they raise their behinds in order to sniff their genitals, some even biting the males' private parts. It is a strange spectacle, monitored by researchers from the University of Geneva (Unige).
The phenomenon is described in an article in the latest issue of the scientific review Current Biology. This behavior, a type of rodent sexual harassment, has never been seen before in mice. A plausible cause would, of course, be genetic engineering.
It all started with an ugly surprise one morning, when scientists from the Department of Genetics and Evolution at Unige discovered some male mice in the laboratory with mutilated genital organs.
"It was shocking, as we have never seen these types of injuries in our mice before, and we couldn't figure out what had caused them," a geneticist, Jozsef Zakany, says. The injuries continued and would often happen overnight, when mice are most active. Researchers therefore decided to install video cameras in the cages in order to film the rodents' nocturnal behavior.
The video footage revealed various surprises. Firstly, they discovered that the female mice were actively participating in mating rituals. The films also revealed some explicit scenes. The females, when they were in a sexually receptive phase, would seek out the males and sniff their intimate parts to initiate mating. Even though this can appear in other species of animals, scientists had never seen female mice initiating mating.
The videos also unmasked the males' attackers: a handful of female mice that could be described as nymphomaniacs. Like normal mice, the females approached the males, but in such an aggressive manner that they injured them. "In some of the videos, it really looked as if they had lost control of their impulses," says Zakany.
Of mice and men (and women)
Zakany says that there was no doubt about the sexual character of these attacks, especially as the females never attack members of their own sex. The males show a surprising amount of tolerance. They are not at all aggressive toward the females, even when the females bite them.
This unusual sexual behavior among female mice could be caused by genetic modification. Researchers from Unige, specialists in the study of "genetic architecture," had suppressed one strand in the genetic structuring of the mice. This strand is situated in an area named "HoxD." Their goal was to study the consequences of this deletion in animal development. However, they never expected to unleash a breed of sexually hyperactive female mice.
"One of the most surprising finds in the study is that only the females seem to be impacted by the genetic modification," says Pierre Roubertoux, a specialist in behavioral genetics at the University of Marseille.
Researchers have not, in fact, observed any change in the mating ritual of the males among this mutated breed. "The effect of this deletion is, therefore, most probably influenced by the mouse's hormonal condition," the French geneticist suggests.
Nevertheless, there is a high level of variability among the individual mice that have been genetically modified, and those conducting the study have concluded that the behavior of these mutant mice is significantly different from that of average mice.
How genetic modification influenced the mice's behavior is yet to be explained. Geneticists have observed that a strand of genes named "HoxD," adjoining the area that they suppressed, reacted abnormally in the brain of mutant mice. This gene should normally act as a protein provider, which could be the cause of these abnormalities.
"However, the team in Geneva were not able to identify this protein, which meant they had to stop their research," says Pierre Roubertoux.
In human beings, similar genetic modifications can appear as a result of natural causes. No sexual abnormality was, however, observed in patients who experience this deletion. "However, maybe these people were simply not asked about their sexual lives," Zakany suggests.
Roubertoux acknowledges that "the same genetic modification can also have different effects on mice and humans." Some human illnesses can also produce wild and compulsive sexual behavior. However, it is normally linked to complex physical problems, such as brain damage or some forms of epilepsy, and not to genetic engineering.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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