Pop. Pop. Pop.
As I write this, I am occasionally interrupted by the urge to pop bubble wrap. Pop. A mountain of it sits in our lab, the Wen Lab at St. Michael’s Hospital, freshly peeled away from equipment that, until recently, it snuggled. Pop pop.
Besides the interminable supply of bubble wrap, we’re also excited about this equipment. Thanks to funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, we’re the first lab in Canada to don a fully automated, high-throughput, high-content zebrafish screening platform.
Wait… what? Basically, the zebrafish can be used as a model organism, just as one might use mice or rats, and this platform allows us to quickly do things like image large numbers of fish or use them to screen for potential drugs in a fully automated manner. Yes, perhaps surprisingly, the zebrafish has emerged as a useful model organism to study biological processes and diseases in humans – in fact, in numbers alone, fish now greatly outnumber the use of other vertebrates in research. They’re small, easy to genetically manipulate, and very useful in screening large libraries of compounds for drug discovery. Although fish are obviously not humans, as a vertebrate, they still share many fundamental similarities. Consider, for instance, how much we have learned from the even more evolutionary distant fruitfly (Drosophila melanogaster), nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and (usually) harmless bacterium Escherichia coli. By extension, we can learn quite a bit more from zebrafish.
And we already have. The zebrafish has helped identify the roles of many new genes such as those involved in development and a wide variety of diseases, from cancer to blood disorders to schizophrenia and autism. Fruitful research in zebrafish functional genomics like this is burgeoning; for instance, the International Zebrafish Protein Trap Consortium aims to identify and characterize 5,000 new zebrafish genes by 2017. Among many other reasons, this is why zebrafish are also powerful in drug development and pharmacogenomics.
Zebrafish have other attractive properties, such as the fact that they can fully recover from severe spinal cord injury, or from having a third of their heart completely removed. The hope, of course, is that treatments for humans can emerge from studying the ways zebrafish accomplish these daunting feats of regeneration, and headway is certainly being made.
So while today I may be popping bubble wrap, with this new automated zebrafish platform, soon we may be popping out more answers. Pop, pop, indeed.
If you would like to check out our new system, we’re hosting its grand opening at our second annual Zebrafish Functional Genomics Workshop on Chemical Biology and Pharmacogenomics from Thursday, June 14, 2012 to Friday, June 15, 2012, complete with a selection of lectures from zebrafish researchers around the world. For further details, please contact David Spillane at email@example.com.
And for a riveting bed-time read, check out this shiny-new review paper on the many technologies amenable to the zebrafish by yours truly.