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Snapshots of Life: Coming Face to Face with Development

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Zebrafish larva

Credit: Oscar Ruiz and George Eisenhoffer, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston

Zebrafish (Danio rerio) is a favorite model for studying development, in part because its transparent embryos make it possible to produce an ever-growing array of amazingly informative images. For one recent example, check out this Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2016 BioArt winner, which shows the developing face of a 6-day-old zebrafish larva.

Yes, those downturned “lips” are indeed cells that will go on to become the fish’s mouth. But all is not quite what it appears: the two dark circles that look like eyes are actually developing nostrils. Both the nostrils and mouth express high levels of F-actin (green), a structural protein that helps orchestrate cell movement. Meanwhile, the two bulging areas on either side of the fish’s head, which are destined to become eyes and skin, express keratin (red).

Oscar Ruiz, who works in the lab of George Eisenhoffer at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, used a confocal microscope to create this image. What was most innovative about his work was not the microscope itself, but how he prepared the sample for imaging. With traditional methods, researchers can only image the faces of zebrafish larvae from the side or the bottom. However, the Eisenhoffer lab has devised a new method of preparing fish larvae that makes it possible to image their faces head-on. This has enabled the team to visualize facial development at much higher resolution than was previously possible.

In addition to still shots, the Eisenhoffer lab makes real-time movies that, when coupled with sophisticated computer software, can be used to trace the paths of individual cells in developing zebrafish larvae with exquisite precision. They’re also tracking how specific genetic alterations affect the movement of cells in the face and head of the developing zebrafish. The goal is to gain new insights into genetic mutations linked to human craniofacial birth defects, especially cleft lip and palate—a condition that affects thousands of babies born in the United States every year.

The Eisenhoffer lab is also using the zebrafish model to explore the cellular and molecular processes driving development of the epithelium, which is the tissue that forms skin and lines the digestive tract and other organs throughout the body. Such knowledge may prove useful for tissue regeneration or figuring out better ways to treat or prevent epithelial cancers, which include many common types of breast, colorectal, lung, ovarian, prostate, and skin cancers.


Why Use Zebrafish to Study Human Diseases? (Intramural Research Program/NIH)

Video: Zebrafish—A Key to Understanding Human Development (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development/NIH)

Cleft Lip and Palate (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research/NIH)

Eisenhoffer Lab (The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston)

BioArt (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences


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