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Making Fish Faces

July 1, 2013

Lateral view: skeletal pharyngeal developmentIn the last days of December 1942, members of the American Society of Zoologists gathered at New York City’s Hunter College to hold their 40th annual scientific meeting. To open the conference, about a dozen presenters gathered at 9:30 a.m. in Room 718 of the college’s main building to offer the latest in embryology. The latest meant viewing “living pictures” of embryonic development captured through the lens of a motion-picture camera, then one of biology’s high-tech imaging tools of choice.

Slotted fourth on the program that morning was a fifteen-minute clip titled: The formation of the blastodisc in the egg of the zebra fish. (The blastodisc is the egg’s embryo-forming portion.) Sitting near the controls of the Lantern moving-picture projector was the cytologist Dr. Warren Lewis, then of the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. His myriad brief biology films were standard fare in American schools, and today’s offering would introduce most in the room and in science class to this tropical freshwater fish that was native to the southeastern Himalayas.

Lewis chose the zebrafish (Brachydanio rerio) because its embryo is almost fully transparent, allowing the camera lens a clear, fixed view of the blastodisc. “The blastodisc soon begins to appear over the flattened area,” he described. “The continuous contractile tension of the superficial gel layer surrounding the yolk forces relatively clear cytoplasm through the flattened area to form the blastodisc.”
ventral view: skeletal pharyngeal development

In the 70-plus years since these simple observations, the zebrafish has become one of the go-to model organisms in vertebrate developmental biology. This small, minnow-like fish develops from start to finish in only about 12 hours, its genome is amenable to genetic manipulation, and, as Lewis discovered, its body plan can be clearly visualized throughout development, today down to cellular resolution. Another major selling point is the developmental pattern that unfolds in the zebrafish is conserved among all vertebrates.

Published online on May 28 in BMC Developmental Biology, a group of NIDCR-supported scientists show just how detailed and valuable of a resource the zebrafish has become in advancing craniofacial research. They describe the FishFace Atlas, a free, high-resolution developmental map of the zebrafish craniofacial skeleton. The atlas serves as a reference guide for scientists to enable anatomical and cellular studies of craniofacial development. FishFace is a component of the NIDCR-supported FaceBase Consortium, and its web page is found at:

The article is titled, “FishFace: Interactive atlas of zebrafish craniofacial development at cellular resolution.” The article is published online in the journal BMC Developmental Biology. The authors are Eames BF, Delaurier A, Ullmann B, Huycke TR, Nichols JT, Dowd J, McFadden M, Sasaki MM, and Kimmel CB.

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This page last updated: February 26, 2014