Zebrafish help unlock genetic mysteries in humans

Eugene, Or- Every morning before school Andrei Novikov prepares a twenty-pound breakfast of live brine shrimp. He has thousands of hungry mouths to feed.

Novikov is a feeder at the campus zebrafish lab, Zebrafish International Resource Center. The lab is responsible for the production of thousands of zebrafish, a valuable resource in the scientific community.

“My job isn’t exactly glamorous but the little guys have to eat,” said Novikov, a junior marine biology student at the University of Oregon. He has worked at the facility for the last year feeding the fish and shadowing the scientists that work there.

Novikov said, “Eugene has always been the place for zebrafish.” In the early 1970’s, a scientist at the University of Oregon named Dr. George Streisinger determined that the zebrafish is a wonderful model for studying animals with spines called vertebrates. Because they have a backbone, these fish are more closely related to humans than spineless invertebrates like insects or worms and more valuable to the scientific community. Specifically, they help scientists study genetics and the processes of growth and healing.

Novikov described the tiny fish as “unexciting to look at but extremely valuable on the inside.” Zebrafish have an arsenal of unparalleled genetic characteristics that make them easy for scientists to study and manipulate.

Zebrafish are easy to breed in mass quantities. Novikov said, “They have rapid embryonic development. They progress from eggs to larvae in 2-4 days which makes them quite easy to mass produce.” ZIRC ships hundreds of zebrafish out to labs across the country weekly and can easily replace their export.

The zebrafish embryo is clear and develops outside of the mother, which helps with visibility and access to the developing fish. “It is really interesting being able to watch the baby fish develop so clearly and quickly,” said Novikov. “You can see internal organs such as the brain and heart at all stages.

By transplanting or extracting different kinds of cells, scientists at the lab are able to physically manipulate the embryos. By using dyes scientists can track the development of single cells and see what eventual role they play. This gives us a lot of information on how certain genes act in humans.

“The best part of my job is knowing the importance of the information that comes from all these fish I feed.” Although humans and zebrafish are obviously very different, their embryonic system of development is remarkably similar.

“The scientists here are able to simulate many different types of mutations that happen in humans. This allows them to determine how certain birth defects and syndromes occur,” said Novikov. Many successful techniques have been developed through zebrafish research that allows mutations to be more easily found and mapped.

“There is potential that zebrafish can help unlock the mysteries of many common disorders in humans… I feel lucky to be a part of it.”


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