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24 September 2015

The rise and rise of the diminutive zebrafish

It shares 70% of our genetic code, can repair its own heart, grows at an astonishing rate and is transparent meaning it can be easily examined. Little wonder this stripy tropical creature has become one of scientists’ best allies in fighting disease.

Once more commonly favoured as an aquarium pet, the tiny black and white zebrafish has acquired a startling scientific importance in recent years and is now playing a key role in unravelling the roles of all the 20,000 genes inside the human body.

Its soaring popularity is down to several key attributes that scientists look for when trying to model human diseases.

Astonishing growth rate

Female zebrafish produce hundreds of offspring that grow at an astonishing rate. A zebrafish embryo will develop as much in a day as a human embryo will in a month and a fish reaches full adulthood – and its maximum size of around two inches – within three months. They are also easy to maintain in large numbers indoors.

Transparent bodies

Young zebrafish are almost completely transparent, a critical feature for it allows researchers to study cells inside their bodies as they grow and divide without touching them.

FVG Inc, Portland September 2014 - visit to Zebrafish laboratory

Fully sequenced genome

In combination with its transparency and remarkable growth rate, the zebrafish’s genetic structure is surprisingly close to that of humans. Its genome has been fully sequenced and it has well-understood, easily observable and testable developmental behaviors.

As a result, scientists have already used the fish to pinpoint the functions of hundreds of human genes. About 70% of our genes turn out to have a zebrafish counterpart, and for genes that cause disease in human, 84% of these have zebrafish analogues, which is why bodies like the Wellcome Trust in the UK is funding a substantial study of zebrafish.

Regeneration

Zebrafish also have the ability to regenerate their own fins, skin and hearts which is helping advance research to improve the survival and recovery rate of people recovering from heart attacks.

Advancing research

Their use was first pioneered by the American molecular biologist George Streisinger in the 1970s and 1980s but has led to advances in the fields of developmental biology, oncology, toxicology, reproductive studies, neurobiology, stem cell research and regenerative medicine.

Once best known as an aquarium pet, the zebrafish has become a scientific star