$2.7 million grant to support creation of virtual zebrafish atlas

transparent embryo with females producing about 200 eggs per week, giving researchers the quantity of offspring and the short life cycle needed to efficiently study how genetic malfunctions can lead to disease. As vertebrates, zebrafish provide a closer model for humans than yeast or fruit flies, which are also commonly used for medical research. In the early 1990s, Cheng and his team became the first to develop the zebrafish as a medical research model to study the relationship between high rates of mutation and the development of cancer.

"Zebrafish are becoming an ideal research model to determine the functions of individual genes in vertebrates and the timing of gene expression during development in the context of a whole, living organism," Cheng said. "Strong similarities between fish and mammalian development have led to the discovery of new insights that would have been difficult to obtain using other models."

The atlas initiative started in 1999 when representatives of the international zebrafish community met at the NIH and assigned to the Cheng lab the task of creating a virtual atlas of normal microanatomy for the growing research community. Cheng has envisioned the field using the atlas infrastructure as the foundation for development of a new approach to understanding biology that will address the problem of information overload.

"We're calling this new approach Systems Morphogenetics," Cheng said. "This new, more integrated view of biology will focus on understanding how genes determine form and function during organisms' life spans, across the spectrum of earthly life forms. Ultimately, I believe this integrated approach will give us a deeper understanding of life and disease."

Cheng is the organizer of a Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology symposium on Systems Morphogenetics, which will take place at the Experimental Biology 2005 scientific meeting in April.


Contact: Valerie Gliem
Penn State

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