Mighty, mighty zebrafish

This little aquatic creature packs a big punch for research
By Nicole Endres

Perry Hackett Jr., Ph.D.

Zebrafish Core Facility manager Marc Tye. (Photo: Scott Streble)

They’re about an inch long; we’re generally 5 to 6 feet tall. They breathe water; we breathe air. Simply put, they’re fish; we’re mammals.

So what good are zebrafish to the research of human conditions? Plenty, says University of Minnesota Zebrafish Core Facility manager Marc Tye: “The zebrafish genome is about 70 percent similar to the human genome.”

Zebrafish are good for studies of human cancers, development, neurobiology, pharmacology, behavior, and more, Tye says. “There’s some lung disease research going on here, even though fish don’t have lungs,” he says. “We do some regeneration work, because if you cut the fin of a zebrafish, they’re likely to grow their fin back. And actually, if you damage their heart when they’re really young, they’ll grow part of their heart back.”

On top of that, zebrafish are inexpensive, they reproduce quickly (a male and female zebrafish can produce up to 300 embryos every week for two years, Tye says), and they develop very quickly.

“They go from a single cell to essentially a full little zebrafish in 24 hours,” he says. “They hatch at three days.”

Perry Hackett Jr., Ph.D., spearheaded one of the most prolific zebrafish research yields in the University’s history. The College of Biological Sciences professor in 1997 found and resurrected an extinct fish gene to integrate segments of mammalian DNA into chromosomes of vertebrates. This Sleeping Beauty Transposon System also has been used to discover functions of genes, specifically genes that cause cancer. It has since been used as a nonviral vector in human gene therapy around the world and has played a major role in finding hundreds of genes thought to be drivers of human cancers.

Here are a few of the ways U researchers are using zebrafish to improve a variety of other human conditions today:

  • Pulmonologists Peter Bitterman, M.D., and Craig Henke, M.D., working with the College of Pharmacy’s Carston R. Wagner, Ph.D., are injecting scar tissue–forming cells from lungs affected by idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis into zebrafish eggs to measure their activity and, hopefully, speed the development of new treatments for the disease in humans.
  • Yasuhiko Kawakami, Ph.D., an associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, studies the process by which zebrafish regenerate fins and hearts, in hopes of finding ways to coax different types of human cells to regenerate as well.
  • Pediatric hematologist/oncologist Troy Lund, M.D., Ph.D., uses zebrafish to observe how bone marrow stem cells develop after a transplant — in real time — with the goal of improving engraftment success for his patients.
  • Neuroscientist Mark Masino, Ph.D., studies zebrafish to understand the properties that underlie the development of locomotor activity, which could help researchers identify therapies for conditions such as restless legs syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, and Parkinson’s disease.
Published on April 5, 2016

Photos: Scott Streble

Zebra fish facility

(Photos: Scott Streble)

U of M Zebrafish Core Facility 


10,000 zebrafish, approximately

110 lines of transgenic fish

800 tanks

feedings per day

80 water temperature in the tanks, in degrees Fahrenheit