Bailoo, J. D., Voelkl, B., Varholick, J. et al. 2020. Effects of weaning age and housing conditions on phenotypic differences in mice. Scientific Reports 10, 11684.
Poor reproducibility is considered a serious problem in laboratory animal research, with important scientific, economic, and ethical implications. One possible source of conflicting findings in laboratory animal research are environmental differences between animal facilities combined with rigorous environmental standardization within studies. Due to phenotypic plasticity, study-specific differences in environmental conditions during development can induce differences in the animals’ responsiveness to experimental treatments, thereby contributing to poor reproducibility of experimental results. Here, we studied how variation in weaning age (14–30 days) and housing conditions (single versus group housing) affects the phenotype of SWISS mice as measured by a range of behavioral and physiological outcome variables. Weaning age, housing conditions, and their interaction had little effect on the development of stereotypies, as well as on body weight, glucocorticoid metabolite concentrations, and behavior in the elevated plus-maze and open field test. These results are surprising and partly in conflict with previously published findings, especially with respect to the effects of early weaning. Our results thus question the external validity of previous findings and call for further research to identify the sources of variation between replicate studies and study designs that produce robust and reproducible experimental results.