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Zebrafish Helping Science

Date: November 13, 2013
Place: National Institutes of Health, Washington DC
Interview: Dr. Harry Burgess, Investigator, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Dr. Harry Burgess, Investigator, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health:

The zebrafish is a really good way of understanding how humans work. Although its brain is very simple, it has many of the same sorts of behaviors that humans have. So the fish need to feed, they need to escape from predators [animal that naturally hunts others], they need to find shelter.

So every animal has to have a special set of instructions that it carries around with it and when we do genetic experiments we try to see exactly how those instructions are then interpreted or carried out by the animal to create different patterns of behavior or even different animal shapes. So one of the main types of experiments we carry out here to try to modify [change] that set of instructions. So the animal might behave slightly differently and that way we can understand something about how that set of instructions, which is a genetic part of the animal, controls how it behaves.

Seeing the results of the experiments is sometimes very exciting, but actually most of the time, kind of disappointing. You know we learn about as much from our failed experiments as we work out from the ones that succeed.

Where do the zebrafish live?

Usually you go to an aquarium and you see all kinds of cool different fish, different shapes and sizes and maybe you see some sharks. All we have is the one kind of fish, the zebrafish. And actually, unless you look really, really closely, they're all going to sort of look the same. But what's very cool is that each one has a slightly different set of instructions, which is the genes inside the animal. And so they may develop in a very slightly different way, or they may have a very slightly different behavior.

Advice for kids

The most important thing is to be very curious. You should be asking questions all the time about, you know, how things work as they do. And also just to be sort of excited by the basic science of it all. You know, it's cool to go outside and look at the world and understand a little bit about how it works.

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