Tiny fish offers big hopes in fighting diseases

PARIS - One of the world's most popular aquarium fish on Wednesday joined the rat, the mouse, the fruitfly and the nematode worm in the roll call of creatures whose DNA has been sequenced to help fight disease among humans.

A consortium of researchers unveiled the genome of the zebrafish in the British journal Nature, declaring it made a vital model for pinpointing faulty genes.

The tiny striped fish -- Danio rerio in Latin -- has 26,000 genes, 70 per cent of which are shared with humans.

Eighty-four per cent of genes known to be associated with human disease have a zebrafish counterpart.

The fish has a brief life cycle and in the embryonic stage is transparent, which makes it highly useful in the lab.

The zebrafish has already unlocked insights into cancer and heart disease and advanced knowledge of muscle and organ development, including genes implicated in muscular dystrophy.

"We can readily create variations in their genome that are relevant to human health and disease. This has allowed a greater understanding of gene function and the finding of new targets for drug treatments," said Leonard Zon of the Children's Hospital of Boston, Massachusetts.

"Several small molecules discovered using the zebrafish system have recently entered clinical trials," he said in a press release.

"The availability of the genome sequence, coupled with the rapid expansion of disease models and chemical screening ability, ensures that the zebrafish system has a major place in biomedicine."