Friday, February 26, 2010

Essence of Zebrafish

Since the 1970’s, the curiously cute and scientifically essential Zebrafish has been used in various studies as an experimental representative for all vertebrates. Though this fluorescent, black-striped fish has no obvious superficial qualities characteristic of humans, it still offers scientists a unique view into human embryo development as well as offering vital information regarding the growth of cancer cells. A study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry by North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers discusses and explains these newly found insights.

The protein Sp2 is a kind of gene on-off switch that controls cellular growth. These NCSU researchers had the hypothesis that the over-production of this protein could be used as an indication of the formation of a tumor. Considering the Sp2 protein found in Zebrafish is identical to that found in mammals, its purpose can be directly related to the same Sp2 protein found in humans. First, a fluorescent marker was attached to the Sp2 proteins found inside Zebrafish. When these fish were exposed to ultraviolet light, their Sp2 proteins glowed bright red, allowing scientists to track exactly where Sp2 was active inside the Zebrafish. For example: an adult, egg-carrying Zebrafish had a bright red glow located only in her ovaries when exposed to this ultraviolet light. After this female laid her eggs, it was apparent that the red glow was also seen within the eggs themselves, suggesting not only the transfer of Sp2 from parent to possible child, but that the Sp2 protein is vital to the earliest stages of embryonic development. It was also observed that when eliminating this protein within an embryo, the embryo ceased to develop. This is big news considering how delicate, complicated and significant the development of an embryo is to the lifespan and health of all vertebrates.

Associate professor of oncology at NCSU, Dr. Jonathan Horowitz, believes that not only is this ongoing research telling of the development of an embryo, but that it may play a big role in answering specific cancer related questions. These questions include more than just if a tumor is forming but what type of tumor it is. Making these possible findings even more tantalizing is that this could all be figured out within the earliest stages tumor development. Subsequently, it is to be noted using Sp2 as a marker to catch tumor development is an educated hypothesis of Dr. Horowitz and his team, not an actual finding. Since cancer plays a very prominent role in the life and death of organisms, this study is possibly a small but important step forward in cancer research. According the Centers for Disease Control, cancer is second only to heart disease in deaths in America. This would account for over 20% of the population.

“We think that these fish may be a useful tool – an aquatic canary in the coal mine – that will allow us to detect early tumor development." - Horowitz


  1. Nice summary of some very cool work. I study eye lens development using zebrafish, and I agree that this species continues to grow as a valuable model for human disease and for understanding the basics of vertebrate development. I have found a big spike in interest in zebrafish research among vision biologists over the past year.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Very interesting post. I am not familiar at all with zebrafish, but was interested and enlightened by the post.

    How far down the road are these specific cancer questions likely to be answered?

  3. Wasn't apparent in the article. These are pretty big questions to be answered so if I had to imagine, it's going to be a while. But the research seems promising based on what I could understand and it is continuing. Cross your fingers...

  4. Interesting post.I wonder if the sp2 protein also is parent-child transferred in humans; if so would that mean a child whose parent had cancer is more likely to get cancer themselves.