Building a better mouse

The breeding facility occupies two of the four buildings in a huge complex at Fudan University in Shanghai, the Fudan-Yale Biomedical Research Center. The first building, with about 25,000 square feet of mouse space, went up in just six months, Xu says, and the other buildings followed quickly. The fourth and largest addition, still under construction, will add 100,000 square feet of space, most of it for mice. “This really made it possible to do it large-scale,” Xu says, marveling at the speed of the Chinese construction effort. The complex not only houses his project, but also aids Fudan faculty research and offers training for talented graduate students and postdocs—some of whom Yale may eventually attract to do research here.

The collaboration with Fudan was Xu’s own suggestion, in part because he received his undergraduate training in genetics there. He grew up in China, the son of intellectuals who suffered under the Cultural Revolution, and is quick to credit Yale for giving him opportunities—when he was a graduate student on fellowship who spoke little English and when he was an assistant professor with a novel idea for a project on mice. But he says he is also eager to give back to Fudan, a school with highly regarded biology departments and numerous Yale connections. (Xu, who is the vice chair of the Yale genetics department and holds a prestigious five-year grant as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, is the director of the Fudan-Yale Center.)

In its post-tercentennial push to globalize its research, Yale has created several such collaborations with Chinese universities. The projects fulfill President Richard Levin’s mission to “become a truly global university,” says Fawn Wang of Yale’s Office for International Affairs, who is tasked with setting up the Yale-China partnerships. But they also allow Yale researchers to complete major research on the cheap. Xu’s mouse buildings were built with grants from the Chinese government; Yale brought $1 million in NIH grant funding for the research, but didn’t raise donor gifts or contribute any money from its general fund. “This is such a world-class university,” Wang says. “They can use our name to apply for money.”

Although costs are low for the lab at Fudan, Xu says he has been careful to ensure that the lab maintains the same high standards for animal care that would be employed in a Yale facility. He works at the facility for about one week out of every month and says the mouse areas are climate-controlled, roomy, and constantly monitored. Fudan is responsible for animal care, but Yale’s contract with Fudan specifies that it has to meet NIH animal care standards. As with other subcontractors, Yale does not undertake on-site inspections. But a representative of Yale’s Institutional Care and Animal Use Committee toured the facility with President Levin when it opened, Xu says, and pronounced it better than some animal labs in New Haven. He considers it an important visit, “so we were not attacked for running a sweatshop.”