Jared Talbot: Sharing zebrafish of every stripe

Jared Talbot wants to share zebrafish with the scientific community — and now he has an award to prove it.

Talbot came to the University of Maine as an assistant professor in 2019 and is now one of five researchers at the university who specializes in using zebrafish as a model organism for scientific studies — a test subject used as a proxy for human beings. 

He first learned about zebrafish being used in research while he was an undergraduate at Cornell University and was instantly fascinated by the versatile fish. Scientists can genetically modify zebrafish to exhibit diseases and disorders similar to those of humans, then easily observe and experiment on the fast-growing fish throughout each stage of their development.

“We can do these cool experiments in a fish that would be impossible in other model organisms,” Talbot says. “They can lay an egg in the morning that grows into an embryo with functional muscle and brain by the next day. For the first few days, they’re transparent. You can look at the fish under a microscope and see to the very center of their body. We can watch tissues as they form, develop and degenerate in real time. That’s the power of a zebrafish. It gives an extraordinarily clear view of development, while retaining the cellular context that would be lost in cell culture.”

Talbot went on to the University of Oregon, which he says is the birthplace of zebrafish biology harkening back to the 1970s with pioneering research by George Streisinger. As he completed his research about skeletal development with Charles Kimmel, Talbot found that the zebrafish biology community was inherently collaborative in a way that appealed to him as a scientist.

“Everyone shares their tools prolifically,” Talbot says. “This is one of the hidden advantages of zebrafish as a model organism — we have each other’s backs in this famously collaborative community.”

The online database of genetic data of zebrafish called ZFIN, which stands for Zebrafish Information Network, lists over 1,500 registered labs that use zebrafish for research.  

“Just a few years ago that number was below 1,000,” Talbot says. “It is a community that keeps growing rapidly.”

It was that collaborative spirit that motivated Talbot, in part, to create ZebraShare, a venue for scientists to share mutations of zebrafish that have effects that aren’t relevant to their research, but other scientists might find useful or interesting. 

Talbot had already developed a streamlined process of creating zebrafish mutants using gene-cutting enzymes called TALENs, which he updated for use with CRISPR and then openly shared with fellow researchers. However, the process of making a zebrafish mutant that will be an effective test subject for a particular study is tricky. Pinpointing and mutating a gene is relatively easy, but the result of that mutation isn’t truly known until the initially mutated fish have had a chance to breed and pass the mutation on to subsequent generations — a process that can take over a year.

“Only then do you learn if it’s a result that is important to your own project,” Talbot says. “It takes enormous time and effort to generate and confirm a mutant; I think the community can become more efficient by quickly sharing information about mutants that have too-subtle effects, or sometimes too-severe ones, so someone else doesn’t have to invest all that time independently.” 

In his own research on muscle development, Talbot developed mutants of zebrafish that affected other parts of the body, but he didn’t want these “backburner” mutants to go to waste. 

“I had a choice: I could just move on, start studying effects that are irrelevant to my own focus or I could give away the findings,” Talbot says. “So, I decided to share my trove of off-topic mutants and data.”

Talbot started by offering his mutants to other zebrafish scientists at conferences, many of which were happily adopted for research projects. After one seminar, he hatched a plan with a long-time colleague April DeLaurier to set up a zebrafish sharing system that could be accessed by the whole community. They reached out to ZFIN to create ZebraShare, so zebrafish biologists around the world could swap and share their mutants. 

The zebrafish biology community took notice. Talbot was awarded the 2022 Chi-Bin Chien award from the International Zebrafish Society. Chi-Bin Chien was a famously generous zebrafish researcher who developed many tools for the zebrafish community that he handed out freely. When he passed away in 2011 the International Zebrafish Society established an award in his name. 

According to their website, this award “recognizes outstanding graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, or recently appointed faculty members from any country who have made significant contributions to the field of zebrafish research and have exhibited the generosity and openness that characterized and motivated Chi-Bin Chien.”

“I feel very bashful thinking of myself as generous, because our culture teaches us not to make that claim; however, the zebrafish community values generosity, and this award recognizes generosity, so I think this is the right moment to embrace that trait,” Talbot says. 

Talbot insists, though, that science is never about one individual’s work. He credits DeLaurier for co-creating ZebraShare, as well as Douglas Howe and Leyla Ruzicka, who he says “brought the idea to life in ZFIN.”

He also says there was also extensive student involvement in this project. For instance, Mika Gallati was a UMaine undergraduate when she started working with the mutants they first publicized through ZebraShare.

Talbot hopes that winning the award will help spread the word about the ZebraShare system. 

“I think this can really take off,” Talbot says. “When one finds an off-topic effect, it’s tempting to just move on because every publication requires immense effort. But that defect, or even a lack of defect, could be interesting to someone else. So, now you can easily let people know what you’ve learned by making a ZebraShare entry in ZFIN. That way the information is available and someone else could potentially run with your finding. I think this is a way to help optimize the research efforts of a whole community.”

In the meantime, his lab at UMaine is currently working on “two big projects” with zebrafish, one looking at the cues that control muscle cell migration and growth, and another at muscle differentiation genes in connection with a disease, arthrogryposis.

As for his own “backburner” zebrafish mutants, Talbot says, “We found a home for all of them.”

Contact: Sam Schipani, samantha.schipani@maine.edu