Universiteit Leiden

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Zebrafish models for disease and environmental stress

We use zebrafish as a model organism to study human development and disease as well as animal welfare and environmental impact.

Zebrafish as model organism

Especially the embryos of the zebrafish are ideal for advanced microscopy imaging of development and disease processes because they develop outside the body of the mother and are completely transparent. For this purpose zebrafish lines have been made with fluorescent markers for almost every cell type, tissue, and organ. The adult fish are fully domesticated, breed easily, and are available in well-defined wild-type or mutant strains for which there is a wealth of genomic information.

In our group we use the zebrafish to study infectious diseases (tuberculosis), inflammatory diseases, diabetes, and cancer. We also screen natural and artificial compounds for their pharmaceutical value and we investigate individual stress coping styles. The latter aims for future applications in for example personalized medicine or noise impact studies on fish stock in the wild or in aquaculture.

Tuberculosis infection in a zebrafish embryo

One of the most successful human pathogens is the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Tuberculosis bacteria escape the defense mechanisms of our immune cells and persist for many years inside the human body. Every year two million people die from this disease. Tuberculosis can be studied in zebrafish because they can be infected by a close relative of the human pathogen and because zebrafish and human have highly similar immune systems. With the zebrafish model we aim to gain insight into the genes and signal transduction pathways that are involved in the host-pathogen interactions underlying tuberculosis.

Cancer cells (labeled red) implanted into a zebrafish embryo with green fluorescent blood vessels

Zebrafish embryos are also very useful to study cancer. Human cancer cells can be transplanted into zebrafish embryos and by fluorescent labeling the proliferation and spreading of these cancer cells can be followed. It can also be observed how blood vessels in these embryos are attracted to the human cancer cells. Zebrafish cancer models can be used for the discovery of new drugs for cancer treatment.

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