A common aquarium fish provides insight into the human digestive system.

They are small, transparent, and easy to care for. They are efficient and prolific when it comes to reproduction, and their embryos develop externally and rapidly — in just five days they can swim and eat on their own.

And while at first glance zebrafish and humans would seem to be worlds apart genetically, they are actually remarkably similar.  Zebrafish share more than 70% of their disease genes with humans.

“That makes them a great model for studying both the development and origins of disease,” says Ken Wallace, Associate Professor of Biology.

Wallace has been working with zebrafish for more than 20 years to help understand digestive diseases in humans.  

Wallace was recently awarded a $420,000 grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development at the National Institutes of Health to support his current research on the development of intestinal stem cells using the zebrafish vertebrate model system.

He was recently awarded a $420,000 grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development at the National Institutes of Health to support his current research on the development of intestinal stem cells using the zebrafish vertebrate model system.

“Within the lumen of the digestive system where the food passes, there is a layer of cells that regulates nutrients entering the body," says Wallace. "As these cells are continuously exposed to harsh digestive enzymes and mechanical abrasion, they constantly turn over (die). Constant turnover is accomplished by having multiple stem cell compartments throughout the intestine that produce replacements over the life of the organ.”

While much has been discovered about how stem cells are controlled during the adult phase, much less is known about the origins of these stem cell compartments, how the stem cells form and how they are regulated.

“Understanding the genes and mechanisms involved in formation and regulation of the fish intestinal stem cells will provide information about how human intestinal stem cells are regulated,” he says.

The grant also provides funding for Clarkson undergraduates to perform independent research on the molecular and cellular basis of embryonic development under Wallace’s supervision.

“This gives more students the opportunity for hands-on learning in the lab for the next three years and will hopefully ignite their interest in developmental biology and research,” says Wallace. “Training the next generation of scientists in our field is an important component of the grant.”

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