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Out of a fish gut study, researchers open new doors in intestinal health

Fluorescence imaging of the zebrafish intestine reveals activity of ancient genetic regulatory elements. Nuclei of epithelial cells lining the intestine are shown in blue, and cells that have activated a regulatory element from the HES1 gene are shown in green.
Fluorescence imaging of the zebrafish intestine reveals activity of ancient genetic regulatory elements. Nuclei of epithelial cells lining the intestine are shown in blue, and cells that have activated a regulatory element from the HES1 gene are shown in green. Courtesy of Colin Lickwar

A recent Duke University study sheds new light on intestinal health and disease.

The study, called “Genomic Dissection of Conserved Transcriptional Regulation in Intestinal Epithelial Cells,” published Tuesday in PLOS Biology journal.

Scientists identified an ancient network of genes shared between humans and other vertebrates that make up the intestine.

“These results indicate that the intestines of humans and fishes share more in common than once presumed, making it possible to look into the guts of fish and other related animals to learn about the origins of human intestinal conditions,” said Dr. John Rawls, the senior author of the study.

Some of the shared genes have previously been linked to diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases and obesity. Rawls, associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke’s School of Medicine, said the researchers believe they discovered what may turn those genes on and off.

“Our research has uncovered aspects of intestinal biology that have been well-conserved during vertebrate evolution, suggesting they are of central importance to intestinal health,” Rawls said in a news release from Duke. “By doing so, we have built a foundation for mechanistic studies of intestinal biology in non-human model systems like fish and mice that would be impossible to perform in humans alone.”

The use of animals in human intestinal research is nothing new. But genome-wide data generated from zebrafish, stickleback fish, mice and humans identified the extent the genes were shared among the species.

Dr. Colin Lickwar, a co-author of the study, mapped out each specie’s activity level for all of the genes and the location of specific genetic sequences or regulatory elements that flipped those genes on and off, the university reported.

The project was supported by Duke University and the National Institutes of Health.

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