Model zebrafish: Use the right organism to answer a specific question

Why do I like working with zebrafish? First things first. This isn’t about why I think the model organism that I work with is the best, as it’s very clear to me that there is a tremendous need for and benefit from multiple models (both vertebrate and invertebrate!). This post is merely a reflection of the past 10 or so years of my life—years in which I received my initial scientific training as a master’s student, and subsequently enhanced, refined, and applied my skills as a doctoral student.

My initial foray into science was working with intestinal parasites—namely the rat tapeworm Hymenolepis diminuta and the adult intestinal helminth of swine, Ascaris suum. These were tremendous models for my scientific initiation, and they certainly gave me interesting things to discuss with my wife at the dinner table!

As I mentioned in my previous post, my wife and I started our family during the course of my PhD work. Subsequently, I have countless memories of my kids that I associate with academic milestones, which often culminated with me showing my 1- or 2-year-old child fluorescent photos of zebrafish embryos on my iPhone 4. As an aside, I clearly recall being at the doctor’s office with my wife when we got our first sonogram. As I watched the monitor, my face swelled with pride, and I slowly gripped my wife’s hand. The doctor turned up the volume and pointed: This was our daughter’s heartbeat. Of course we were both thrilled, and I audibly muttered “Amazing.” This would have been a great family moment if I’d left it at that. However, I followed “Amazing” with, “This is exactly like watching the zebrafish’s heartbeat under the microscope in the lab!” Needless to say, there was nothing the doctor could do to bail me out of that one.

Like I said, I enjoyed bringing home pictures—and they’re worth a thousand words. If you listen to a presentation by someone who works with zebrafish, one of the first things they typically start with is that zebrafish are great model organisms due to their rapid transparent development and sequenced genome. From there, the speaker usually delves into the specifics of their project. However, lost in this transition to the details of their study is just how important “rapid transparent development and sequenced genome” actually is. Stated more precisely, these are the factors that allow researchers to model a plethora of human diseases such as cancer, muscular dystrophy, heart disease, cataractogenesis, anxiety, and autism.

When I began working with zebrafish, I was studying toxicology, or more specifically, the effects of heavy metal exposure (think lead or copper, not Metallica) on early development. Amazingly, due to their rapid transparent development, I could directly visualize how exposures to different chemicals directly affected developing organs—using just a basic microscope. Furthermore, due to the aforementioned sequenced genome of the zebrafish, we could perform experiments to see which genes were affected in exposed fish, and make potential correlations to humans.

So why did I begin by saying this isn’t about why I think zebrafish are the best model organism to work with? All model systems have caveats and things to consider—both in a practical and scientific sense. On the practical end, you must consider space, cost, maintenance, etc. From the scientific end, there are multiple considerations to be made—or as one of my professors once said, “Use the model organism that is the best to answer the specific question you are asking.” Or more precisely stated, “Good luck studying heart development in fission yeast!” That’s no knock on fission yeast researchers; they have no practical use for my beloved zebrafish, either. But I’ll still share my pictures.


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Dr. Drew

Dr. Drew obtained his PhD in molecular biology while building a family of 5 with his lovely wife. Dr. Drew is currently expanding his horizons and working as a postdoctoral research fellow where he studies congenital heart defects. In his spare time he enjoys ball room dancing with his wife.

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