Just keep swimming or don’t! Curiously following Zebrafish

People often think of science as focusing on very specific questions or rigorous hypothesis testing. However, some of the most exciting advancements were the result of general curiosity of seemingly disparate ideas, and a sprinkle of creativity. For example, the beginnings of how electricity was discovered started by poking frog legs with different types of metals. The modern zero-calorie sugar (saccharin) was discovered by playing creative-chef with coal tar products in the 1870’s when the chemist accidentally tasted his chemical concoction.

Sarah Alto

Our guest this week is using young zebrafish to investigate how environmental factors affect their behavior, and whether behavioral changes can be attributed to specific brain activity. Why zebrafish you may ask? They are a model organisms or they tend to be well studied, relatively easy to breed and maintain in lab settings, and as vertebrates, they share some characteristics with humans. The more we know about zebrafish, the more clues we may have into our own neurobiology. Sarah Alto is exposing these model organisms to different levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide stress. She monitors their swimming with infrared cameras and examines their brain to get an idea of how they respond to stress physically and mentally. This is no easy task because the young zebrafish are only a few millimeters long!

Oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide gas is bubbled into the tank holding the larvae.
The entire set-up is enclosed in a light-tight box so the larval behavior is more connected to the environment changes and not human interaction.

Curious Sarah is asking: Are low oxygen or high carbon dioxide concentrations changing the swimming behavior of zebrafish? What happens in the brain of a zebrafish when it experiences environmental stress? What can we learn about how environmental factors shape the brain’s connections and influence behavior? Sarah has a long road ahead of her, one that is unpaved with many junctions, but she is performing the exploratory work that may inspire future investigations into the affects of stress on the brain.

The second part of Sarah’s research will be investigating the neural activity when the larvae are exposed to the same gas concentrations as studied in the behavioral experiments.
Image courtesy of Ahrens et al. (2013)

Prior to Sara’s interest in biology, she was always drawn to art as an escape and a method of expression. When choosing which colleges to attend, she didn’t want to choose between art and science. So she chose to pursue both! Sarah enrolled at UC Berkeley as double major including Molecular and Cellular Biology, as well as Practice of Art. The San Francisco art scene was highly accessible, and Berkeley is a top-flight university for the sciences. Needless to say she flourished in this environment and her love of science grew but her love of art continues to this day. Finishing her schooling she began working at UC San Francisco, a premier medical research university, investigating the role of stem cells in facial development to for possible medical treatments for facial reconstruction. She was involved in a variety of projects but her gut feeling led her to continue schooling at Oregon State.

Sarah is now a part of Dr. James Strother’s lab in the College of Science within the department of Integrative Biology focusing the behavioral neurobiology of zebrafish. Be sure to tune in Sunday April 9th at 7PM PST on 88.7FM or listen live.

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