It measures one-inch long. It can heal its heart and regrow some amputated parts. It shares nearly three quarters of our genetic code and reproduces at rates that would make a rabbit blush.
It’s teaching landlubbers an extraordinary amount about what can go wrong inside our bodies.
Meet the tiny zebrafish. Once upon a time, this striped tropical fish mostly swam in aquariums in homes and offices. Since the 1990s, a growing number of scientists have embraced zebrafish as a powerful model to study disease. They’re cheap, spawn by the hundreds, and develop outside their mothers’ bodies. They’re the live fish equivalent of The Visible Man see-through anatomical model.
No wonder the National Institutes of Health recently analyzed grant data and found a 60 percent jump in studies of zebrafish over the past seven years.
Across the UW Health Sciences, 15 principal investigators use zebrafish to study everything from vision and hearing loss to cancer and toxicology. They’re a chummy bunch who meet regularly to discuss current research. The Fish Club is passionate about their tiny subjects. Dr. Susan Brockerhoff, who studies retinal diseases, has been to known use “Zebra Eye” as an online username.
“Once you work with zebrafish, you realize how amazing they are,” said Dr. Eleanor Chen, assistant professor of pathology. She first worked with them in grad school, where their transparency appealed to her as a former art student. Researchers like Chen can easily observe what happens during embryonic development: cells sliding around, organs forming, hearts beginning to beat.