Zebrafish embryos and larvae: a new generation of disease models and drug screens

Birth Defects Res C Embryo Today. 2011 Jun;93(2):115-33. doi: 10.1002/bdrc.20206.


Technological innovation has helped the zebrafish embryo gain ground as a disease model and an assay system for drug screening. Here, we review the use of zebrafish embryos and early larvae in applied biomedical research, using selected cases. We look at the use of zebrafish embryos as disease models, taking fetal alcohol syndrome and tuberculosis as examples. We discuss advances in imaging, in culture techniques (including microfluidics), and in drug delivery (including new techniques for the robotic injection of compounds into the egg). The use of zebrafish embryos in early stages of drug safety-screening is discussed. So too are the new behavioral assays that are being adapted from rodent research for use in zebrafish embryos, and which may become relevant in validating the effects of neuroactive compounds such as anxiolytics and antidepressants. Readouts, such as morphological screening and cardiac function, are examined. There are several drawbacks in the zebrafish model. One is its very rapid development, which means that screening with zebrafish is analogous to "screening on a run-away train." Therefore, we argue that zebrafish embryos need to be precisely staged when used in acute assays, so as to ensure a consistent window of developmental exposure. We believe that zebrafish embryo screens can be used in the pre-regulatory phases of drug development, although more validation studies are needed to overcome industry scepticism. Finally, the zebrafish poses no challenge to the position of rodent models: it is complementary to them, especially in early stages of drug research.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomedical Research / methods*
  • Disease Models, Animal*
  • Drug Delivery Systems / methods*
  • Drug Evaluation, Preclinical / methods*
  • Embryo Culture Techniques / methods*
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Fluorescence
  • Humans
  • Larva
  • Microfluidics / methods
  • Pregnancy
  • Toxicity Tests / methods*
  • Tuberculosis / physiopathology*
  • Zebrafish*