Look just about any neurological research, and you've got a good chance of seeing zebrafish mentioned. Whether it's figuring out what thoughts look like, mapping an entire brain in action, or even testing out neuroenhancing drugs, zebrafish have been involved. Why have the little zebrafish (Danio rerio) become so popular in research?
The video above from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK does a great job of explaining how zebrafish have become biology's supermodels. There are plenty of physical traits that make them attractive for study—they're easy to keep, reproduce quickly, and their clear eggs develop outside of their mother's body, which makes their development easy to track.
There's also been more than a decade of research into their genome. First sequencing efforts started in 2001, and just a couple days ago an update to the reference genome was published in Nature. A corresponding article by Ewen Calloway notes the value in sequencing the genome of a tiny tropical fish: Zebrafish have "more than 26,000 protein-making genes," which is more than any vertebrate yet sequenced.
A female zebrafish, via Wikipedia
The newest version of the genome was sequenced by a team led by Derek Stemple, a researcher at the Sanger Institute who's featured in the above video. As Calloway writes, Stemple's team "found that about 70% of human genes have a counterpart in zebrafish — a figure that jumps to around 80% for human genes implicated in disease."
While a Google Scholar search for Danio rerio pulls up an incredible body of work, from eye development studies to toxicology research, the zebrafish's role as an incredible proxy for genomic research stands out. If gene-based therapy is in our medical future, whether it be through targeted drugs, gene therapy itself, or simply better pharmaceuticals, we'll first have to understand how our own genome works. We have the wonderfully-named zebrafish to thank—along with brilliant researchers like Stemple, of course—for leading us down that path.