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The Importance of Fish and Other Sea Life in Medical Research

It has been a long-understood fact that the tranquility of aquariums has been known to help relieve stress and lower heartrate and blood pressure in some. As the biomedical field continues to grow and become more important to advancements in health care, the methods and options used by research also continue to expand. During this expansion, aquatic and marine organisms are becoming important in making advancements towards the health of all of us. Some of the fish and invertebrates you have in your home aquariums may someday help to save your life. Here are just a few of the organisms researchers have turned to:

Zebra Danio (Danio rerio): This fish is one of the most widely-used by researchers. They have Zebra Daniobecome model organisms used for genetics research, neurological and other medical research, environmental studies and even organ and tissue regeneration. Specific genes have even been identified in different color pattern mutations. One of the most brightly-colored community aquarium fish, the popular Glo-fish, is a variation of the Zebra Danio that was original spliced with jellyfish DNA to create a fluorescent fish used to detect pollution and toxins. Zebra Danios are even on the very short list of animals that have made a trip into space!

Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus): TheHorseshoe Crab Horseshoe Crab is right next to the Zebra Danio in terms of the number of studies it participates in. They have compound eyes that have become important in vision research and a substance found in their blood known as Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) can help researchers detect bacteria and pathogens in medications and human tissue. LAL is collected in much the same way a person donates blood and the crabs can be released after collection. You can read all about them here.

Mussels: Mussels, the clam-like bivalves popular in aquariums and seafood restaurants alike, are already helping to heal wounds and have established their staying power in the medical field with their…well, staying power. Mussels used very thin filaments known as “byssal threads” to attach to hard surfaces. The adhesive that they use to attach themselves to surfaces is similar to the “Krazy Glue” and superglues that we all use to piece together broken mugs at home, but is much more effective in the salty, wet environments where the bivalves live. This adhesives is also extremely strong but still flexible. Researchers at companies like Johnson and Johnson have developed glues from the byssal thread compounds (warning: some graphic surgical images) that help to seal wounds and reattach bone fragments without the use of foreign materials like stitches and sutures.

Mantis Shrimp: This notorious group of invertebrates has earned a bad reputation in the aquarium industry as Mantis Shrimpthe secretive live rock hitchhikers known to pick off tankmates or even break aquarium glass, all while earning a following with a select few as an original showpiece. Among researchers, their powerful strikes and extremely complex eyes have made them the subject of many studies. The strike of a mantis shrimp is one of the most powerful and fastest strikes in relations to their size and researchers have studied their mechanics to discover how this power is possible. The eyes of the mantis shrimp can convert polarized light wavelengths and function over almost the entire light spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet, a feat our own eyes can’t even come close to. Their ability to convert and filter light across this spectrum has led researchers to look at mantis shrimp as the next step in optical devices like CD and DVD systems. While most of the research on mantis shrimp still seems to be focused on the “how’s”, it is only a matter of time before scientists discover how we can use what the mantis shrimp teach us.

Platies and Swordtails (Xiphophorus sp.): These two groups of livebearers are very popular, bright little community fish but recent research has given them a much more profound meaning. These livebearers are some of the first subjects to prove that some cancers like certain melanomas are actually hereditary and can be passed to offspring. Some of the dark pigment cells in these fish have been known to multiply out of control and form cancerous tumors. Remarkably, some of these fish can actually continue to live and thrive even with these tumors – and they can reproduce and pass this condition on to their young. While some forms like the popular Mickey Mouse Platies can form melanomas in the spots by their tails, it is more apparent in fish with a lot of black in their coloration. Scientists are working to understand how this condition is passed and how the fish can continue to live with it.

Corals: In addition to providing some color to the Zebra Danios already mentioned, some corals are giving Capnella sp.biomedical scientists some inspiration in designing medications. Scientists have recently discovered capnellene, a compound found in a species of soft corals that can be used as a painkiller and may provide relief to those suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and other neurological conditions. Some of the same fluorescent proteins used to color Glo-fish are also being applied to some cancerous cells, allowing researchers to much more easily track their spread.

This is just a small sampling of how animals that have long been popular in the aquarium trade are being used to improve health and medications for all of us. As we as aquarists work to keep our own aquariums alive and healthy, those same fish and invertebrates may be working to save our lives as well.

Thanks for reading,



  1. avatar

    Have you heard anything about researchers using the kidneys of Nurse Shark species to help fight blood diseases, or Porifera species helping to fight cancer? I’ve read about this awhile ago, just wondering if you’ve heard anything

  2. avatar

    Hi Justin,

    I haven’t heard of any Nurse Shark research involving blood diseases specifically. Many different studies focus on shark cartilage (and the glucosamine it produces) and its impact on joint health and even some cancers. Shark liver oil has also been used as a supplement for Omega-3 fatty acid and other compounds and to treat a wide range of conditions and ailments.

    Sponges and compounds from them are certainly being studied in medical research. Most of the sponges used in cancer research are deep-sea or cold-water sponges and aren’t likely to be found in the aquarium trade. Some of the most notorious cancers like pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer and leukemia may soon have treatments or a cure that have come from sea sponges.

    Thanks for the comment, Eileen

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About Eileen Daub

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Marine Biologist/Aquatic Husbandry Manager I was one of those kids who said "I want to be a marine biologist when I grow up!"....except then I actually became one. After a brief time at the United States Coast Guard Academy, I graduated from Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 2004. Since then, I've been a marine biologist at That Fish Place - That Pet Place, along with a Fish Room supervisor, copywriter, livestock inventory controller, livestock mail-order supervisor and other duties here and there. I also spent eight seasons as a professional actress with the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire and in other local roles. If that isn't bad enough, I'm a proud Crazy Hockey Fan (go Flyers and go Hershey Bears!).