The zebrafish is extremely prolific: the female produces an average of 200 eggs a week. Embryos are transparent and develop rapidly within 2-3 months.
The biological mechanisms of the embryonic growth of Danio rerio resemble many aspects to human beings. For these reasons and for the ease with which researchers succeed in inducing mutations in their DNA, zebrafish has been chosen as a genetic model for the study of diseases and defects in human development.
By analyzing the interactions between fish genes, experts hope to shed light on the regulatory mechanisms of gene expression in human DNA.
Dozens of research centers around the world have specialized in zebra fisheries over the last few years and the competition between Europe and the United States in this area is very strong, both purely scientific and from the point of view of 'Pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry.
The ZF-MODELS project
The objective of the European Commission and the Swiss National Fund for Scientific Research is to support the competitive effort of the old continent.
This is how the ZF-MODELS project, which was launched in January and coordinated by the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen, was attended by fifteen research institutes in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland with a Politecnico Zurich. The European Commission will contribute to the total cost of the initiative with twelve million euros, the Swiss Fund with another 400,000 euros.
The most modern techniques of DNA manipulation and analysis will be applied massively: researchers will produce thousands of mutant fish to study the effects of mutations, determine the function of each gene, and correlate the interactions between them.
All the information gathered within the project will come together in anatomical and genetic zebrafish atlas that will be available free of charge to the scientific community and the public interested on the zf-models site.
The zebrafish in Zurich
The Zurich Politecnico research group taking part in the ZF-MODELS project, led by the neurobiologist Stephan Neuhaus, has long been using zebrafish as a model for embryonic development analysis. "Our specific field of interest is the development of the visual apparatus," explains Neuhaus, "in practice we produce and analyze genetic mutations that involve visual impairment."
The Swiss neurobiologist and his team have developed techniques to detect blind larvae. "Let's investigate the causes of the blindness of these mutated specimens," says Neuhaus, "and identify the molecular defects at the origin of visual apparatus malfunction."
Some of the mutations have similarities with hereditary human diseases, such as retinal dystrophy. "We therefore hope that our work will be useful in the medical field."