Studying fish can help improve human health

Aug 29, 2018

“Integrative biology, the way we like to phrase it, is understanding the entire spread of biological organization, which is from molecules to ecosystems,” says Ingo Braasch, MSU assistant professor of integrative biology.


Braasch in full Indiana Jones mode together with an alligator gar in the lab he uses the smaller spotted gar, though.

“Traditionally our department, which used to be the Department of Zoology, has been working with animal subjects. Basically, my research shows what fish can tell us about the genetic basis of our own human evolution, development and disease. In many cases, fish like gar or zebrafish can serve as models for human disease research for conditions such as cleft palate for example.”

“In a very strict scientific way, humans and all the land-dwelling vertebrates are some sort of reorganized fishes. So we emerged from fishes evolutionarily.” So studying fish can help improve human health.

“There’s a term bench to bedside, but in the case of fish I think we should say from tank to bedside and back. There are many examples where fish research has already led to important and significant understanding of human diseases.”

Garfish has been called a “bridge species,” as its genome is similar to that of both zebrafish and human, a discovery in which Braasch led. This correlation means that scientists are able to identify a disease-associated genetic region in humans, locate the corresponding region in the spotted gar genome and then investigate the appropriate location in the genomes of zebrafish or other fish models to potentially understand disease development.

“Charles Darwin coined the phrase ‘living fossil,’” says Braasch. “Studying gars and other so-called ‘ancient fishes’ exemplify this because the living species resembles long-extinct relatives from the fossil record.”

“We are using gar to further improve comparisons of humans to zebrafish and thereby helping to make zebrafish and other fish species even better model systems for disease research,” Braasch says. “By studying gar and zebrafish side-by-side, we also hope to answer many more evolutionary questions about the origin of vertebrate genomes and their biology, including our own ancestry.”

Gars, found from Central America to Michigan evolve slowly and have kept more ancestral elements in their genome than other fish. This means that along with serving as a bridge species to humans, gars also are great connectors to the past.

“Charles Darwin coined the phrase ‘living fossil,’” Braasch says. “Studying gars and other so-called ‘ancient fishes’ exemplify this because the living species resembles long-extinct relatives from the fossil record.”

In summarizing his work, Braasch says “fishes are important at many different levels to understand our own nature and history evolutionarily speaking. We emerged from fishes, and if we study fishes we can learn a lot about ourselves.

“Fish are incredibly diverse. So by studying them we can learn a lot about biodiversity and the challenges that come with global change. We can use fishes to learn more about human diseases and use the fish model system to develop treatments for human diseases.

“MSU is becoming an important player in the world of fish biology. So by studying different fish systems in multiple labs I think we have a nice cohort of colleagues at MSU to study fish biology in many facets.”

Want to learn more about MSU’s fish research? Check out Fishapalooza.

Layne Cameron contributed to this report.

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