Scientists have relied on animal models as an alternative to testing on human tissues and cells for decades. But not just any organism can adequately model how human cells behave. Researchers take into account how quickly the organism can mature, how many offspring it can produce and how often it can reproduce. When studying genetics and developmental biology, one of the most important qualities to consider is how similar the model organism’s genes are to human genes.

Although humans and fish certainly look very different, the zebrafish has proved to be an excellent model organism for scientists studying hematopoiesis, or the development of blood cells.

In the Espín Lab at Iowa State University, assistant professor of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology Raquel Espín-Palazón and master’s candidate in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Gabrielle Dubansky study the early stages of blood development, particularly the birth of blood stem cells, which happens only once during embryonic development. They focus on a specific set of genes that play a significant but somewhat elusive role in the molecular pathways involved in this process. Although they want to understand how these genes work in the context of human blood development, testing on human embryos is obviously ethically impossible. To circumvent these challenges, they use zebrafish instead.

Read Dubansky and Espin-Palazón’s full article in The Conversation here.