Mayo Clinic researchers, in a technical debut, have succeeded in switching individual genes off and on in zebrafish, then observing embryonic and juvenile development.
The work could help shed light on health-related problems such as how cancerous cells spread, what makes some people more prone to heart attacks, or how genes factor in addiction.
More complicated issues, like the genetics of behavior, plasticity and cellular memory, stress, learning and epigenetics, could also be studied with this method.
"I consider this particular system a toolbox for answering fundamental scientific questions," says Ekker, a Mayo Clinic molecular biologist and lead author of the article.
"This opens up the door to a segment of biology that has been impossible or impractical with existing genomics research methods."
Researchers exposed translucent zebrafish to transposons, "jumping genes" that move around inside the genome of a cell. The transposons instructed zebrafish cells to mark mutated proteins with a fluorescent protein 'tag.'
"This makes investigation of a whole new set of issues possible," Ekker said.
"It adds an additional level of complexity to the genome project," he added.
The study appears in the journal Nature Methods.