Fishing for Answers in Development

Posted on October 24, 2011 by


Picture this: a warehouse room full of quietly dripping tanks, stacked on racks to the ceiling, and as far as the eye can see. Each tank is full of a couple dozen subjects that will help Pittsburgh researchers understand the way bodies develop.  Zebrafish help us study how a single fertilized egg can develop into the complex structures that make up an organism. The University of Pittsburgh had the foresight to develop its Zebrafish facility into one of the largest in the nation.  The facility has 11,000 tanks, and supports a collaborative zebrafish community by housing some half a million fish.  What does that look like?  Check out this virtual tour.

But why Zebrafish? These little fish make a great model system for development.  For starters, after fertilization, the baby fish are completely transparent. Without any fancy equipment, you can look at the fish and see if its heart is beating, if its brain has formed, or if its blood is flowing. They are vertebrates, which means there are some important genetic and developmental commonalities between them and humans (they develop a spine and ribs, we develop a spine and ribs).  And you can make loads of zebrafish very quickly and cheaply, and the storage for them can be quite dense. The half a million fish facility is a room about 4600 sq.ft.

And there is some very exciting research happening at this facility. For example, there are labs that study how kidneys develop,  the growth and development of a GI tract,  and the development of a central nervous system. Ed Burton has developed a model of nuerodegeneration in Zebrafish that may help researchers understand the biology of diseases like Alzheimer’s. Michael Tsang’s lab has developed some great chemical screens that can be performed on Zebrafish, which can quickly determine if chemicals will result in surprising effects on developing embryos. This kind of work can save years in more complex trials and save lives. All thanks to a little fish from the Ganges and a vibrant community of Pittsburgh scientists.

Posted in: Pittsburgh Life