Zebrafish as a Model for Human Diseases


The zebrafish, Danio rerio (a tropical and small freshwater fish), is an early vertebrate model organism. Its use in modelling human disease has numerous advantages over other animals as zebrafish have a fully sequenced genome, high fecundity, short generation interval (3–4 months), rapid embryonic development, external fertilisation and translucent embryos. External fertilisation and transparent zebrafish embryos allow for gene function studies at the early stages of the embryogenesis, for access to all stages of development and for time‐lapse imaging of progressing pathologies. In addition, zebrafish are economically viable for large‐scale genetic and chemical screens, which is not feasible in other vertebrate model organisms. Advances in the techniques and coincidentally these characteristics of zebrafish confer an advantage over murine biology and therefore elevate zebrafish as a critical human disease model and research tool.

Key Concepts

  • The zebrafish, Danio rerio, is a small tropical freshwater fish that belongs to the Cyprinidae family of the order Cypriniformes.
  • A model organism is any nonhuman organism which is widely used to study and understand biological processes in order to provide a better understanding of disease processes in human disease research.
  • Because of its external fertilization, high fecundity, translucent embryos, short generation interval, rapid embryonic development, fully sequenced genome and similar genome to humans, the zebrafish became a useful animal model to study human diseases.
  • Genetic screens are used to identify new genomic regions that contribute to a particular phenotype within a population of genetically mutagenised individuals. This laboratory procedure provides a useful platform to study gene function.
  • Transplanting donor zebrafish tissue into a recipient is a useful tool to study cell engraftment and tumour metastasis in a uniform background.

Keywords: zebrafish; model organism; human diseases; genetic screens; development

Figure 1. The zebra fish, Danio rerio, is a small freshwater fish that has been used in large‐scale mutagenesis studies to generate models of human diseases and development. Photograph used by permission of Monte Westerfield, ZFIN, http://zfin.org/.
Figure 2. Upper panels: zebra fish embryos stained at 48 h with o‐dianisidine for haemoglobin detection. Lower panels: zebrafish peripheral erythrocytes stained with Wright–Giemsa. Upper left: a wild‐type zebrafish embryo at 48 h with red blood cells travelling over the yolk sac in a primitive circulation. Upper right: a weissherbst zebrafish embryo at 48 h with marked anaemia. Lower left: wild‐type zebrafish peripheral erythrocytes with normal nuclear size. Circulating erythrocytes are nucleated in zebrafish. Lower right: weissherbst peripheral erythrocytes with enlarged nuclei and immature morphology. Reprinted by permission of from Donovan et al. © Macmillan Magazines Ltd.


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Further Reading

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Tavakoli, Sahar, Rothschild, Harriet, and Zon, Leonard I(Oct 2017) Zebrafish as a Model for Human Diseases. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005580.pub2]