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Explorations in Science and Technology

What Do Zebrafish Tell Us About Humans?


What’s the best way to study hearts, brains, and kidneys? Some Pitt researchers begin by watching them grow.

Pitt biochemists Nathan Bahary and Neil Hukriede oversee the University’s state-of-the-art zebrafish facility, where researchers study organ physiology as it develops. More than 11,000 self-cleaning tanks can hold half a million adult zebrafish.

A fish embryo grows outside its mother’s body, and among zebrafish both the embryo and its sac are transparent. Development occurs rapidly; within 48 hours after fertilization, zebrafish larvae are freeswimming, and all major organs are formed. And because fish are vertebrates, there is high similarity in the genetic code between zebrafish and humans.

“You can literally watch the heart start beating or the brain start to grow,” says Bahary. “If we can figure out how organs normally form, we’ll be able to then find targets for therapies in humans.”

Pitt neuroscientist Edward Burton examines developing brains in the zebrafish, hoping to understand multiple system atrophy.