The key to understanding vertebrate development and the origins of human birth defects may lie with the fishes--that is, with the zebrafishes (Danio rerio). Using zebrafish mutants produced primarily by chemical mutagenesis, researchers have, in recent years, turned the popular aquarium pets, originally from India, into invaluable tools for understanding the finest genetic details of vertebrate embryogenesis.

Zebrafishes are the only viable candidate for large-scale vertebrate mutagenesis screens akin to those done in C. Elegans and Drosophila --a task that's usually too expensive in the mouse.

In mice, so-called reverse genetics is utilized; scientists perform knockout mutations on a known gene of interest and then study the resulting mutant animals. In zebrafish, researchers, using forward genetics, first randomly mutate genes and then attempt to understand the function of those genes. The procedure allows investigators to explore much more of the unknown or poorly understood parts of the genome in...

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