Zebrafish could hold clues to helping us repair our eyesight.
Travis Bailey, assistant professor of biology at SUNY Geneseo, examines how zebrafish repair their eyes and what we can learn to benefit ourselves in the future.
Biologist Travis Bailey gained an interest in regenerative biology as an undergraduate student and forged his pathway into the field through his postdoctoral work at the Center for Zebrafish Research at the University of Notre Dame. Bailey says we can gain important information on how organs regenerate by determining how they were generated in the first place. During his graduate studies in developmental biology at Baylor College of Medicine, he had the opportunity to study how similarly the eyes of fish and humans develop and how genes are employed to form the eye. This led to his interest in zebrafish and their ability, unlike humans, to proliferate damaged retinal cells. When not in his lab, Travis likes to spend his time gardening and exploring the rivers, streams, and lakes of upstate New York with his wife and four daughters, as well as any others who like to come along.
Conquering Vision Loss through Regenerative Biology
The National Eye Institute estimates that the number of people affected by eye diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration, will increase dramatically by the year 2050. Many of these disorders result in the breakdown of the retina, which contains photoreceptor neurons that detect light and help move that information to the brain.
Unfortunately, humans are not able to regenerate damaged photoreceptors, which can cause permanent vision loss. However, zebrafish, commonly found in pet stores, can.
We’re working in our lab to determine the complex process that allows the regeneration of zebrafish retinal cells. This, in turn, could eventually help us develop strategies to benefit humans.
Adult stem cells in the eyes of zebrafish – called Müller glial cells – produce many daughter cells and regenerate damaged photoreceptor cells. So we’re studying these stem cells, using molecular techniques to understand the function of many genes that potentially control them and to see which gene networks are needed to regenerate the retina. By doing so, we find clues on how the glial stem cells respond to the multiple signals that direct regeneration. One or more of those signaling mechanisms is ineffective in humans. Because the genes and retina of zebrafish are so similar to ours, an understanding of the differences in such signaling between humans and zebrafish following retinal damage could help us develop strategies to help our retina regenerate. Finding therapies to regenerate human retinal neurons could also lead to advances in other neural regenerative medicine applications such as brain injuries.