Sanger Centre to sequence zebrafish genome in new Wellcome Trust Initiative
In a major new initiative, the Wellcome Trust announced that the next target for genome sequencing would be a small fish called the zebrafish. With a genome only half the size of that of mouse or human, the zebrafish will play a key role in finding genes in the other genomes. The new project is predicted to take three years.
The announcement closely follows a Workshop held at the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus - home of the Sanger Centre - attended by international scientists in the zebrafish research community.
The small zebrafish is a powerful force in biology. Adults are about 4 cm long, the female can lay 200 eggs per week, and the embryos are transparent and reach maturity in 2-3 months. Exquisitely precise tools have been developed to generate and analyse alterations in the zebrafish genome. In combination, these features mean that exchange of sequence information between human and zebrafish projects will accelerate progress in each. The humble zebrafish will be used to find meaning for the code in the human genome.
"One of the great advantages of zebrafish is the ability to produce, very readily, mutations that are relevant to human health and disease. This genomics initiative will superimpose those mutations on disease loci identified through the work of the Human Genome Project."
Leonard I Zon, MD, Children's Hospital of Boston MA
Development of blood cells is one example where mutations in the zebrafish genome closely resemble human disease such as anaemia or thalassaemia.
"Zebrafish is the ideal organism to study the function of human genes."
Professor Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, from the Max-Planck Institute in Tübingen, Germany
Professor Nüsslein-Volhard, Nobel Prize Winner in 1995, is studying the way the body plan is laid down during development. The Tübingen group has identified more than 1000 mutations in the zebrafish, many of which affect processes with great relevance to human physiology and disease, such as heart function, hearing, blood formation, vision, cartilage and bone formation, nervous system development. These are now studied in many laboratories worldwide.
"Sequencing the zebrafish genome will provide a rapid route to discovering the molecular basis of these mutations and hence to an understanding of the biochemical function of the genes which they identify."
Professor Philip Ingham, University of Sheffield, UK
One area of Professor Ingham's research is an important gene in development called sonic hedgehog: mutations in this gene cause one of the most common forms of human birth defect, holoprosencephaly.
"This builds on the seminal work, supported by the Wellcome Trust, on the human genome sequencing project and will help all our future studies on gene function, leading to health care benefits."
Dr Michael Dexter, Director of the Wellcome Trust
Many genes are similar between genomes of human and those of less complex animals. The genomic information from the worm C. elegans, the first animal to be sequenced, has been used to find Alzheimer's genes. However, the worm and the fly Drosophila do not possess many of the complex organ systems found in higher organisms. Being a vertebrate, the zebrafish (Danio rerio) has blood, kidney and optical systems that share many features of the human systems. Work on this organism will complement that on the mouse, which is the most widely used mammalian genetic model organism. The Sanger Centre and the Wellcome Trust are also participating in an international consortium to sequence the mouse (press release 6 October).
Layering of genomic information of different species - comparative genomics - is an especially useful method for identifying genes and gene control regions because similarities are revealed. If the organism provides unique methods for biological study - as do both the zebrafish and the mouse - then the combination of biological and sequence information can advance research more rapidly.
As with all projects undertaken by the Sanger Centre and the Wellcome Trust, the sequence information will be released rapidly, and made available to researchers without cost or restriction.