Rats, mice and fruit flies be warned: The hippest lab critter around is a striped, little fish from South Asia called the zebrafish.
Zebrafish breed quickly, scientists can manipulate their genes easily, and the fish actually share a surprising number of similarities with humans.
As a result, researchers can study zebrafish to better understand how things like metabolism, birth defects, and even cancer work — and the results are often applicable to humans. So, for instance, it's relatively quick and easy to test certain drugs on zebrafish. If those experiments yield promising results, the scientists can then do more targeted experiments with rodents. And then maybe, finally, with people.
Zebrafish have some unique characteristics that can be useful too: Zebrafish can regenerate heart, retina, spinal cord and fin tissue. Scientists are probing this ability to improve healing and potentially even cultivate new tissues. Their embryos are also transparent, allowing scientists to study organ development in real-time.
Scientists have grown quite masterful at manipulating their genes. As Locke writes: "Over the past five years, the cost of modifying a single gene in a zebrafish has dropped from $10,000 down to about $100." That's part of the reason why more than 2,000 biomedical papers are written each year using the fish.
Joseph Schech, DVM, knows these animals well:
"They’re very hardy. They’re very forgiving," says Schech, a laboratory veterinarian in charge of roughly 200,000 zebrafish (and several other species) at the National Institutes of Health. "They are very adaptable in the wild. They live in clear mountain streams. They live in muddy rice paddies. They can do a wide range of temperature if they have time to adapt to it."
He's in charge of keeping the creatures healthy in a NIH zebrafish facility that's currently used by some 21 different laboratories. It's one of the largest zebrafish facilities in the world — a single 78–80°F room that holds about 10,000 small tanks with a total of roughly 200,000 fish. The zebrafish eat a diet of brine shrimp grown in a nearby room and can be trained to spawn on cue.
Numerous Stanford labs use zebrafish for all sorts of research: William Talbot, PhD, is examining the development of the vertebrate nervous system; Gill Bejerano, PhD, is probing its genetics; and James Chen, PhD, is looking at its ability to regenerate tissue, to name just a few.
Previously: Researchers capture detailed three-dimensional images of cardiac dynamics in zebrafish, The importance of the zebrafish in biomedicine, Cellular-level video of brain activity in a zebrafish and A very small fish with very big potential
Image by Bob Jenkins