Little fish in a big lab

By Amberlene De La Rocha

Zebrafish do not seem like they can provide insight to human learning defects caused by chemicals. However, these little fish have become a common model in many labs, including our own.

Dr. Levin’s lab is currently testing the effects of certain chemicals on zebrafish learning ability. The fish are put into a small, cylindrical tank on a platform that is tapped to startle them. Before and after each tap, their movement is tracked by a video camera and computer software. After several of these, the fish learn that the taps do not lead to danger and they startle less, leading to less movement after a tap which means that they have learned.

For more information take a look at this  paper written by Dr. Levin and some colleagues. This paper shows that the test was sensitive enough to differentiate between regular fish and those that were exposed to chlorpyrifos. It is the same methodology we are using in our current studies.

The Superfund center is using this experiment to do large amounts of testing quickly, with lower costs compared to other animal models. The idea of “teaching” a fish seems ridiculous, but our lab has been able to do some great work with these little animals.

At first, all this seemed overwhelming with the sophisticated computer software and the loads of data it produces.  On top of that, the other interns and I had been dropped into a large, busy lab with multiple projects going on at once. We were the “little fish in a big lab”. The next thing I knew, we were running experiments, going to lab meetings, and compiling data. It has been a great experience working here, and I am really glad I have the opportunity to continue in the fall and see where these results take us.