Zebrafish have emerged as powerful model organisms to decipher in vivo complex interactions ranging from normal development to human diseases such as cancer, inflammatory disorders, and heart disease.
These small freshwater tropical fish normally live in the waters of India, Pakistan, and Bhutan, but now are increasingly found in research labs across the world. Not only are they genetically similar to humans, but their biochemistry and organ systems parallel ours. Because they reproduce so quickly and have many offspring, they also offer a model for high-throughput screening of drug compounds.
The European Zebrafish meeting, held recently in Edinburgh, Scotland, provided an update on current challenges and emerging solutions in this fast growing area. New research included the live imaging of nerve myelination, how immune cells regulate the cytoskeleton, and developing technologies to use zebrafish larvae for high-throughput screening.
“Zebrafish have a number of attractive features,” noted Rebecca Jones, a Ph.D. student in the lab of professor Paul Martin, department of biochemistry, school of medical sciences, University of Bristol. “They are easy to breed and produce up to 250 eggs per mating. The larvae are transparent and allow a variety of fantastic live-imaging capabilities unparalleled in other vertebrate organisms.”
Jones is studying how key cytoskeletal regulators impact immune cell behavior. “Although initially employed for developmental studies, zebrafish have recently become a tool for studying the immune system, which begins developing in the young embryo. For us, they can be used as a model to better understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms of immune cells such as macrophages and neutrophils. Another advantage of the zebrafish model is that we can create and screen genetic mutants that have links to human immune system diseases.”
Zebrafish can help in better understanding Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, a potentially fatal human immunodeficiency disorder characterized by recurrent infections, autoimmunity, and excessive bleeding. Little is known about what causes immune cells to malfunction in vivo.
“Patients express dysfunctional variants of the Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome protein (WASp), a hematopoietically restricted regulator of the actin cytoskeleton. Although much is known about the biochemistry of WASp and the in vitro restricted mobility of WASp-defective cells, in vivo studies have proved to be much more challenging. We are studying the in vivo effects of key WASp mutations on immune cell functions using live imaging of zebrafish larvae.”
Jones said they have developed a mutant in which zebrafish WASp1 has been inactivated. “This mutant model allows us to better study the importance of this protein on immune cell function in vivo. Further, we can use transgenic cell lineage markers, such as a green-fluorescent protein (GFP) label in neutrophils, to live image the cell migration in vivo, for instance toward a wound site using widefield and confocal microscopy.
“Zebrafish genetic techniques then allow us to express human WASp within our model and access the degree of rescue of the mutant phenotype. We are currently analyzing a graded range of human WASp mutants to determine more precisely how each affects immune cell function. Ultimately, this will help us better understand how human mutations result in disease.”
CNS In Vivo Model
The coating of nerve fibers with myelin (i.e., myelination) is an essential requirement for the proper functioning of the vertebrate nervous system. In humans, myelin production begins in the fourteenth week of life and continues thereafter. Similar to electrical insulation, myelin coats, protects, and thus aids the electrical transmission of axons.
In the central nervous system, myelin is produced by specialized cells called oligodendrocytes that wrap their cell membranes around axons. In demyelinating illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, faulty oligodendrocytes may be the chief culprits underlying the disease process. However, most of the cellular and molecular mechanisms governing myelination remain largely obscure.
Tim Czopka, Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow in the Center for Regenerative Medicine, Center for Neuroregeneration at the University of Edinburgh, and colleagues are utilizing zebrafish as vertebrate models for studying myelin regulation. “It is very difficult to study the dynamics of myelination in vivo in mammals. We have learned most of what we know from tissue culture systems or mouse models.
“Zebrafish offer an attractive alternative. They begin producing myelin already as two-day-old embryos. At this stage they are optically transparent, which allows us to track the dynamics of myelinating cells in vivo and in real time without the need for surgical intervention.”
To visualize the process, Dr. Czopka expresses GFP under the control of myelin-specific promoters. “We have generated a suite of transgenic reagents that allows us to express genes of interest in specific neurons and oligodendrocytes. We can follow the developing embryo and study cellular dynamics during myelination at high resolution using time-lapse confocal microscopy. Since axons differ in size and not all axons are myelinated simultaneously, we wanted to understand how myelination is regulated.”
Dr. Czopka and colleagues found that the largest axon is myelinated first. “Our studies determined that there is a developmental gradient in which the larger axons are myelinated first. Furthermore, the interaction between the oligodendrocytes and axon is an important regulatory step for myelin production. This also suggests that there must be a very active exchange of signals that govern this interaction. In the future, we plan to use forward genetic screens to discover the genes that regulate this process.”
Overall, Dr. Czopka says, these zebrafish systems represent a powerful approach to obtain novel insights into the in vivo mechanisms of myelination.