Background: Transcripts can exhibit significant variation in tissue samples from inbred laboratory mice. We have designed and carried out a microarray experiment to examine transcript variation across samples from adipose, heart, kidney, and liver tissues of C57BL/6J mice and to partition variation into within-mouse and between-mouse components. Within-mouse variance captures variation due to heterogeneity of gene expression within tissues, RNA-extraction, and array processing. Between-mouse variance reflects differences in transcript abundance between genetically identical mice.
Results: The nature and extent of transcript variation differs across tissues. Adipose has the largest total variance and the largest within-mouse variance. Liver has the smallest total variance, but it has the most between-mouse variance. Genes with high variability can be classified into groups with correlated patterns of expression that are enriched for specific biological functions. Variation between mice is associated with circadian rhythm, growth hormone signaling, immune response, androgen regulation, lipid metabolism, and the extracellular matrix. Genes showing correlated patterns of within-mouse variation are also associated with biological functions that largely reflect heterogeneity of cell types within tissues.
Conclusions: Genetically identical mice can experience different individual outcomes for medically important traits. Variation in gene expression observed between genetically identical mice can identify functional classes of genes that are likely to vary in the absence of experimental perturbations, can inform experimental design decisions, and provides a baseline for the interpretation of gene expression data in interventional studies. The extent of transcript variation among genetically identical mice underscores the importance of stochastic and micro-environmental factors and their phenotypic consequences.