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Fishing for Answers in Human Disease

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Images of both a wild type zebrafish and a vhnf1 mutant zebrafish. The mutant fish shows abnormal bulging in its upper body.

Caption: Researcher Zhaoxia Sun, at Yale, uses the zebrafish to study Polycystic Kidney Disease, which affects more than 600,000 Americans. Mutations in the zebrafish vhnf1 gene, and its human counterpart, cause cysts in both zebrafish and human kidneys (as shown by the large “bubble” seen in the mutant fish). [3]
Credit: Zhoaxia Sun, Biological & Biomedical Sciences, Yale University

Wouldn’t it be instructive if we could see the effect of a genetic mutation in real time, as the gene was misbehaving? Well, that’s one of the perks of using the zebrafish—a tiny, striped, transparent fish.

Just last month, an international team of scientists—funded in part by NIH—published the entire genetic code of the zebrafish [1]. This is a vital resource for understanding human health and disease. How does the genetic blueprint of a fish help us or accelerate drug discovery? Well, it turns out that more than 75% of the genes that have been implicated in human diseases have counterparts in the zebrafish. So, if we discover a mutation in a human, we can make the corresponding mutation in the zebrafish gene—and often get a pretty good idea of how the gene works, how the mutation causes havoc, and how it causes disease in humans. We can even use the zebrafish to test potential drug candidates, to see whether they can alter or fix the symptoms before moving on to mice or humans.

A second paper in the same issue of Nature describes how another team has created mutations in 38% of all the zebrafish genes and is now investigating the effects of each mutation [2]. Fishy as it sounds, it’s an amazing system to learn about biology.


[1] The zebrafish reference genome sequence and its relationship to the human genomeHowe K, et al. Nature. 2013 Apr 25;496(7446):498-503. doi: 10.1038/nature12111. Epub 2013 Apr 17.

[2] A systematic genome-wide analysis of zebrafish protein-coding gene function. Kettleborough RN, Busch-Nentwich EM, Harvey SA, Dooley CM, de Bruijn E, van Eeden F, Sealy I, White RJ, Herd C, Nijman IJ, Fényes F, Mehroke S, Scahill C, Gibbons R, Wali N, Carruthers S, Hall A, Yen J, Cuppen E, Stemple DL. Nature. 2013 Apr 25;496(7446):494-7.

Genomics: Zebrafish earns its stripes. Schier AF. Nature. 2013 Apr 25;496(7446):443-4.

[3] vhnf1, the MODY5 and familial GCKD-associated gene, regulates regional specification of the zebrafish gut, pronephros, and hindbrain. Sun Z, Hopkins N.  Genes Dev. 2001 Dec 1;15(23):3217-29.

NIH support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Office of the Director


  • Melody S says:

    Fascinating how science moves forward. With the first wave of baby boomers well into their retirement years, I believe that the next decade or two will be a major boon for scientists in research money to cure disease. Baby boomers have influenced everything from civil rights to womens rights and rock ‘n’ roll. It will be interesting to see how they influence medical research.

  • Dr. Sri S. Sriskandar says:

    Dr. Gary Stuart got a head start on this at Indiana State University in 1989. Two of his publications are quoted in a text book. I took his Graduate Seminar in Developmental Biology.

  • Azahar says:

    This is a really good read for me. Must admit that you are one of the coolest bloggers I ever read. Thanks for posting this informative article. Regards.

  • Bea Cherry says:

    Wow, I found this post quite interesting. I am excited to know that scientists worldwide are still working hard at understanding human health and disease, they are so many diseases that we need cures for. Thanks for posting!!!

  • Travis says:

    I agree with the other commentators, great post indeed.

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