Nation’s Top Zebrafish Experts Gather at UM College of Arts & Sciences for Research Symposium

Zebrafish Help Scientists Answer Big Questions about Genetics and Diseases

Zebrafish are only about one inch long – but these tiny fish are helping scientists answer big questions about genetics and how diseases emerge.

Zebrafish embryos are clear, and they grow outside of the mother’s body, allowing researchers to observe their development from the moment an egg is fertilized. In just two days, cells differentiate into separate organs, and the fish are capable of many actions – all available to view in real time under a microscope.

Some of the nation’s top zebrafish researchers gathered at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences this week for the Tales of Discovery Symposium: Answering Cutting-Edge Research Questions with Zebrafish. It was organized by Julia Dallman and Isaac Skromne, both assistant professors of biology in the College, and Marisa Hightower, senior program manager for SEEDS (a UM-wide program aimed at fostering diversity across all three campuses).

Eight leading scientists presented their work with zebrafish during the event. Participants also had a chance to attend a poster session where undergraduate and graduate students working with these distinguished faculty members shared their work. Fourteen projects showed the promise of future research using zebrafish, such as identifying genes that cause hereditary deafness in humans.

Dallman called zebrafish “the model organism,” sharing her studies to determine how mutated genes that cause diseases differ from normal genes. She described a study on Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which affects neurons with long axons – particularly the foot and lower leg muscles. It affects about 1 in 2,500 people in America. Watching the neurons develop in zebrafish is yielding some clues as to how this inherited neurological disorder progresses in humans.

‌Lisa Ganser is an assistant professor at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University. She worked with Dallman and Associate Professor John Lu while earning her Ph.D. at UM, and incorporates zebrafish in her studies on how chemicals affect the development of neural behaviors.

“Zebrafish can respond to stimuli within 24 hours,” she explained, discussing her research on the effects of Adderall – a drug that helps children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder focus. Ganser and her colleagues have found that the drug “prevents zebrafish from responding to stimuli appropriately,” and they are looking to determine: “How does it disrupt communication within the brain?”

Harvard Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Florian Engert presented one of the keynote addresses, describing his work mapping neural activity in zebrafish. He and two students devised a novel experiment, using a laser to expose five- to seven-day-old zebrafish embryos to an unpleasant (but not dangerous) amount of heat. The fish “learned” to flick their tails in a designated direction in order to turn off the heat. The whole time, Engert and the team monitored their brain, watching as the neurons fired and the tiny subjects figured out how to achieve their desired result.

The second keynote speaker was Cecilia B. Moens, a professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, who spoke about neuron cell migration. Both she and Engert gave longer presentations at the Miller School of Medicine while on campus.

Other presenters were Lu and Skromne, and Jeffrey Plunkett, associate professor at St. Thomas University.

The event concluded with guided tours of UM’s state-of-the-art zebrafish facility.

The symposium was sponsored by a SEEDS You Choose Award to Dallman and Skromne; the UM College of Arts & Sciences and its Department of Biology, and the Miller School of Medicine’s Neuroscience Program; the Society for Developmental Biology; and Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems, which sells equipment for planning and maintaining zebrafish colonies in labs.

Attendees included researchers and faculty from local universities and Miami-Dade high schools.

 

January 14, 2015