Although they are small in stature, measuring between 2.5cm to 4cm, the tropical fish native to South East Asia are making important contributions to scientific research, particularly the field of regenerative medicine.
The zebrafish (also known as Danio rerio) has become a widely used model organism in scientific research because of some key advantages.
What are the benefits of zebrafish?
Transparency – When zebrafish are in the embryonic and larvae stage of development, they are transparent. This allows researchers to easily see their internal structures, which becomes particularly advantageous when observing the impact of genetic manipulation or pharmacological treatment.
They are easy to look after – It might be surprising to learn that zebrafish are a popular option for home aquariums. This is because they are cheap, hardy and small – the same reasons they make such good model organisms.
They are much more cost effective to maintain than alternatives such as mice, as large numbers are able to be kept in a relatively small area. The aquariums the zebrafish are housed in mimic their natural environments, which reduces stress. This is not only important for animal welfare, but because stress can impinge on the results of scientific experiments.
Offspring – We’ve all heard of the saying ‘breeding like rabbits’ to describe a large quantity of offspring, but maybe a better simile would be ‘breeding like zebrafish’.
While the humble rabbit will only have 4-12 kits (baby rabbits) in a litter, the zebrafish is known to produce 200-300 offspring. This gives scientist a very large number of embryos to study.
How do zebrafish assist with research into regenerative medicine?
Broadly speaking, regenerative medicine is interested in three main questions –
- How is life formed?
- How do organisms develop
- How do organisms regenerative?
The zebrafish are an excellent candidate for answering these questions, not only due of the points mentioned above, but because they share an amazing 70 percent of their genetic code with humans.
The extent of their genome is also very well known. This allows scientists to better understand many of the genes they share with humans function.
Zebrafish have also captured the attention of scientists because it has the unique ability of repairing its own heart. It is hoped that by studying this process will one day provide scientists with a way of repairing the human heart when it is damaged from disease, injury or an underlying condition.
Many of the research groups at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute use zebrafish as model organism to study human development and diseases.
Zebrafish have become such an integral part of research at ARMI that they have their own facility dedicated to the supply and maintenance of zebrafish. This facility is the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere.