Tiny tropical fish are helping scientists understand human development and disease, from birth defects and cancer to muscle and nerve disorders.
Contributing to this effort, Washington University is now home to one of the largest zebrafish facilities in the world. And with robotic feeding and cleaning systems, it is the world’s most modern, says Lilianna Solnica-Krezel, PhD, professor and head of developmental biology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
“This facility will allow us to do large-scale, collaborative projects that would not be possible for individual investigators,” she says.
The Department of Developmental Biology dedicated its new Zebrafish Facility with a daylong symposium on May 27, 2011, in the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center. Larry J. Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, delivered opening remarks. Speakers from top universities, including Stanford, Harvard and Vanderbilt highlighted research into zebrafish cell signaling, nervous system and craniofacial development.
A common type of minnow, the zebrafish is popular in both scientific research and home aquariums. Zebrafish embryos are transparent and develop outside the body, making them useful for observing growth and development.
With almost 7,000 tanks, including a 2,000-tank nursery, the facility will allow scientists to perform experiments requiring tens of thousands of fish. The robotic nature of the feeding process will allow large numbers of fish to grow quickly, says Stephen L. Johnson, PhD, associate professor of genetics.
But beyond shear numbers of fish, the facility has other resources available to investigators.
“We have a lot of capabilities for obtaining, viewing and manipulating fish embryos,” Solnica-Krezel says. “And we have a lot of expertise here, people who can help in evaluating experiments.”
Solnica-Krezel says she hopes the facility also will help recruit new researchers. According to Kelly R. Monk, PhD, assistant professor of developmental biology, the zebrafish facility was one of the things that attracted her to Washington University.
“I arrived in January and was able to start doing experiments right away,” Monk says.