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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Knowledge from Creatures Great and Small, and a Historic Research Lab Known as Cold Spring Harbor

Next time you walk by fish for sale in a pet store, take a look at a tank full of zebrafish. Then, smile about the major contributions zebrafish are making to human health through their relative transparency, their physical structures, and their genes. Really? Absolutely!

But first, a few words about another little known part of science – Cold Spring Harbor. While reading the press release, note its mention that the annual zebrafish research conference was first held at Cold Spring Harbor. CSH, as its known, is a revered research institute among molecular biologists – its main history page runs quickly through just some of its many important places in the history of genetics and molecular biology. CSH was led at one point by James Watson of DNA fame, and his seminal work was first announced at a CSH conference. CSH also was a research home to Barbara McClintock, a cell genetics researcher who won a Nobel Prize in physiology – in 1983 – for work she did at Cold Spring Harbor in 1944. Thus, almost forty years later she alone was honored for discovering transposons, which are the so-called jumping genes involved in genetic mutations. Sadly, the history of CHS is not all positive – it also was the early 1900s home to misguided eugenics work. On the brighter side, cancer research fundamentals also was occurring at CSH back in the early 1900s. The CSH history page explains:

"In 1916, Clarence Little—studying the genetics of cancer in mice—discovered that Japanese “waltzing” mice, but not other mouse strains, were susceptible to transplanted sarcomas (connective tissue cancers). In 1928, E. Carleton MacDowell discovered a strain of mice predisposed to spontaneous leukemia. Subsequent breeding experiments led to the development of mice with increased susceptibility or resistance to the cancer. MacDowell’s work is a cornerstone of modern cancer research."

Returning to the zebrafish and genetics, the ScienceDaily summary was created from just part of the materials released by the Genetics Society of America in connection with the 2012 International Zebrafish Development Conference, held June 20-24 in Madison, Wisconsin. For those of us who missed the conference announcement, some background from the press release is set out below.

ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ZEBRAFISH GENETICS AND DEVELOPMENT: The zebrafish emerged as a major model system in 1994 with the first international conference at Cold Spring Harbor with 350 participants. This year the zebrafish community celebrates its 10th biennial international conference with more than 900 participants in Madison, WI. Studies using the zebrafish as a model system have allowed us to understand the genetic control of early development that underlie many human diseases. For more information about the conference, see

ABOUT GSA: Founded in 1931, the Genetics Society of America (GSA) is the professional membership organization for scientific researchers, educators, bioengineers, bioinformaticians and others interested in the field of genetics. Its nearly 5,000 members work to advance knowledge in the basic mechanisms of inheritance, from the molecular to the population level. GSA is dedicated to promoting research in genetics and to facilitating communication among geneticists worldwide through its conferences, including the biennial conference on Model Organisms to Human Biology, an interdisciplinary meeting on current and cutting edge topics in genetics research, as well as annual and biennial meetings that focus on the genetics of particular organisms, including C. elegans, Drosophila, fungi, mice, yeast, and zebrafish. GSA publishes GENETICS, a leading journal in the field and an online, open-access journal, G3: Genes|Genomes|Genetics. For more information about GSA, please visit Also follow GSA on Facebook at and on Twitter @GeneticsGSA.

Now to specifics. Set out below is one excerpt from a ScienceDaily summary of several specific examples of using zebrafish genes in research to improve human health – in this instance, the genetics of leukemias and lymphomas:

"Acute T-cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia and Lymphoma (T-ALL/T-LBL)

Human acute T-cell lymphoblastic leukemias (ALL) and lymphomas (LBL) have high relapse rates in pediatric patients and high mortality rates in adults. Hui Feng, M.D., Ph.D., currently at the Pharmacology Department and Center for Cancer Research at Boston University School of Medicine, is using a zebrafish model of leukemia to search for promising targets for new molecular treatments for these diseases…. In work performed in collaboration with Thomas Look, M.D., at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Dr. Feng is combining the power of zebrafish genetics with human clinical studies to hone in on potential genes of interest…. Using a fish strain that reliably develops T-cell lymphoma by two months of age, they identified a novel gene called DLST that is involved in metabolism and energy production in cells. Evidence from human cancer cell lines and patients indicate that abnormally high levels of the protein may be involved in the human disease as well. Reducing DLST activity in the fish significantly delayed tumor progression and growth, suggesting it is a promising target for developing new therapies for ALL and LBL.

Impressed by the zebrafish? There’s more – much more – out there on the knowledge gained from zebrafish. For now, however, a good way to end is with a 2011 video story from the British Heart Foundation and its "Mending Broken Hearts" campaign. It’s "the story of a fish named Hope."

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