As far as pets go, the zebrafish has more than earned its stripes. An aquarium staple, it is also used by scientists around the world, who can watch, second by second, what happens inside its see-through body to shed light on why some people are more prone to tuberculosis, for example, or end up with a painfully curved spine.
Canadian researchers are contending with severe restrictions on zebrafish import to this country, and they say it's hurting their research. As a result, some have had to put certain studies on hold, including those involving Alzheimer's, blindness, heart disease and arthritis. "The import ban has no solid scientific basis, and is not emulated by all other countries who have zebrafish importation. The whole thing just does not make sense," said Vincent Tropepe, Chair of Cell and Systems Biology at the University of Toronto.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) imposed the embargo in 2013 in a bid to protect its waters from disease outbreak, on the grounds that zebrafish could be susceptible to a carp virus and might cause it to spread.
Although the virus poses no threat to people, it causes nasty internal bleeding in fish, killing about a third of them during outbreaks.
The decision has left many in the research community scratching their heads: there's no evidence that zebrafish can spread the virus. The virus is also widespread globally, including in Canada, yet this is one of the few countries with such an embargo in place. (The others include Australia, Israel, South Korea, Malaysia and Bermuda.)
As a result, Canadian researchers have trouble accessing some cutting-edge zebrafish strains. In the last two decades, scientists have created more than 20,000 genetically modified zebrafish strains—lacking certain genes, or whose cells and organs light up with fluorescent proteins—to be used as research tools. These are kept in central stocks in Germany and the US and are openly shared across the world. While many strains already exist in Canada, there's a limit to how many fish tanks a lab can keep due to space constraints, and new strains are imported as needed, although that's proving to be difficult under the existing embargo.
This zebrafish embryo with a glowing heart is helping scientists understand why some people are born with heart damage Video: Ian Scott/YouTube
In his lab at the University of Alberta, Ted Allison uses zebrafish to study mad cow disease, a condition caused by sticky proteins that gunk up, and eventually kill, brain cells. When a colleague in the US created a fish whose brains glow green when hit by the disease, Allison wanted to use the strain to search for drugs that can switch off the green in the brain and make it healthy again.
Before the embargo, Allison would have just asked the colleague to mail the fish to Canada. Or, if that was not possible, he would have ordered the strain from a central stock. But now, instead of buying an off-the-shelf ready fish for a few hundred dollars, the Canadian scientists have to make it from scratch, which takes at least a year and could tally up to $20,000.
Allison had a researcher in his lab recreate the mad cow zebrafish, calling the year and half it took "wasted time". The resentment is echoed by other researchers, who also had to divert their taxpayer-funded grants to recreate the existing strains so they can actually do the science they got funded for in the first place. They're worried they'll be left eating the dust as their international competitors take advantage of all strains available outside Canada.
The CFIA said in an e-mail that import restrictions were a result of zebrafish being listed as susceptible to virus by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), which sets global standards for animal health and trade for its 180 state members, including Canada. But the OIE's decision did not call for an embargo, which is warranted only when the fish are a natural host for a virus and can spread it in the waters. Neither is true for zebrafish. In fact, the only way to get the virus into a zebrafish is to inject it, and even then the fish aren't contagious.
Besides that, scientists take all kinds of precautions to make sure that viruses aren't being swapped among lab animals, which could wipe out their research, sending years of work and lots of funding dollars down the drain.
"We are not working with these fish casually and there's already in place a very structured containment program for these animals. We've been working with them for decades and I am yet to hear about any disease outbreaks," said Daniel Dragon, a biosafety officer at the University of Alberta.
To get around the embargo, research facilities are required to boost the existing quarantine measures for new fish arrivals—an onerous task that only the largest facilities can meet, leaving smaller labs no choice but to continue to recreate the strains.
The CFIA is aware of the researchers' concerns, but shows no sign of loosening restrictions.
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