Study of zebrafish skin patterns shows cells chasing other cells around (w/ video)

January 21, 2014 by Bob Yirka report

( —A team of researchers at Osaka University in Japan has discovered that one type of zebrafish pigment cell chases another around in a Petri dish possibly explaining how they fish gets its stripes. The team has published its findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Zebrafish, unsurprisingly, have striped bodies, reminiscent of zebras. But how does its biology decide to create the stripped patterns, and how does it make it come about? Research by the team in Japan, may be about to provide an answer.

Scientists have wondered about how animals get their stripes or spots for years. Are they hard-coded in DNA, the same way that an organism is able to produce an arm or leg, or is there some other mechanism at work? Oddly, Alan Turing, the famous math and computer visionary asked himself this very question back in the 1950's, and it turns out his theory may turn out to be closer than anyone expected. He came up with a that described the interactions between two molecules—one that causes a pattern to appear and one that attempts to stop it. In this new research, it's not molecules, but whole that appear to be doing something similar.

To find out what's going on with the zebrafish's stripes, the researchers placed a single yellow pigment cell (xanthophore) in a Petri dish and watched it wander around aimlessly. They did the same with a black pigment cell (melanophore) and found it behaved in much the same way. But when they placed both in a Petri dish, they discovered the yellow cell (using finger-like projections) actually chased the black cell around. They noted the black cells were able to move slightly faster, which meant there was a constant game of near catch and run.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Credit: PNAS, doi/10.1073/pnas.1315416111

The researchers can't prove it, at least not yet, but they suspect the game of catch and run exhibited by the two cells is what results in the stripes seen on a whole fish. If there were hundreds, or thousands of such cells all playing catch and run with each other, they suggest, it's possible that the end result would be a corralling of the black cells, resulting in a shape that to us looks like long black stripes.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Credit: PNAS, doi/10.1073/pnas.1315416111

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Credit: PNAS, doi/10.1073/pnas.1315416111

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Credit: PNAS, doi/10.1073/pnas.1315416111
Much more work will have to be done in this area, of course, but for now, it appears possible that some animals at least, get their coloring as the result of physical actions taken by cells, rather than genetic imprinting.

Explore further: Study shows how the zebrafish gets his stripe

More information: "In vitro analysis suggests that difference in cell movement during direct interaction can generate various pigment patterns in vivo," by Hiroaki Yamanaka and Shigeru Kondo.

Related Stories

Study shows how the zebrafish gets his stripe

September 25, 2007

Scientists have discovered how the zebrafish (Danio rerio) develops one of its four stripes. Their findings add to the growing list of tasks carried out by an important molecule that is involved in the arrangement of everything ...

How the zebra got its stripes

February 9, 2012

If there was a 'Just So' story for how the zebra got its stripes, I'm sure that Rudyard Kipling would have come up with an amusing and entertaining camouflage explanation. But would he have come up with the explanation that ...

Precise docking sites for cells

December 11, 2013

The Petri dish is a classical biological laboratory device, but it is no ideal living environment for many types of cells. Studies lose validity, as cell behavior on a flat plastic surface differs from that in branched lung ...

Computer simulation explains why zebras have stripes

December 18, 2013

( —Two researchers, one from the University of Queensland, the other the University of London have published a paper together in the journal Zoology in which they claim to have solved the riddle of why zebras have ...

Recommended for you

Scientists overcome key CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing hurdle

December 1, 2015

Researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT have engineered changes to the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing system that significantly cut down on "off-target" ...

Study finds 'rudimentary' empathy in macaques

December 1, 2015

(—A pair of researchers with Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Université Lyon, in France has conducted a study that has shown that macaques have at least some degree of empathy towards their fellow ...

Which came first—the sponge or the comb jelly?

December 1, 2015

Bristol study reaffirms classical view of early animal evolution. Whether sponges or comb jellies (also known as sea gooseberries) represent the oldest extant animal phylum is of crucial importance to our understanding of ...

Trap-jaw ants exhibit previously unseen jumping behavior

December 1, 2015

A species of trap-jaw ant has been found to exhibit a previously unseen jumping behavior, using its legs rather than its powerful jaws. The discovery makes this species, Odontomachus rixosus, the only species of ant that ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.