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J Vis Exp. 2013 Dec 13;(82):e50925. doi: 10.3791/50925.

Analysis of skeletal muscle defects in larval zebrafish by birefringence and touch-evoke escape response assays.

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Division of Genetics and Genomics, Manton Center for Orphan Disease Research, Boston Children's Hospital, Harvard Medical School.


Zebrafish (Danio rerio) have become a particularly effective tool for modeling human diseases affecting skeletal muscle, including muscular dystrophies, congenital myopathies, and disruptions in sarcomeric assembly, due to high genomic and structural conservation with mammals. Muscular disorganization and locomotive impairment can be quickly assessed in the zebrafish over the first few days post-fertilization. Two assays to help characterize skeletal muscle defects in zebrafish are birefringence (structural) and touch-evoked escape response (behavioral). Birefringence is a physical property in which light is rotated as it passes through ordered matter, such as the pseudo-crystalline array of muscle sarcomeres. It is a simple, noninvasive approach to assess muscle integrity in translucent zebrafish larvae early in development. Wild-type zebrafish with highly organized skeletal muscle appear very bright amidst a dark background when visualized between two polarized light filters, whereas muscle mutants have birefringence patterns specific to the primary muscular disorder they model. Zebrafish modeling muscular dystrophies, diseases characterized by myofiber degeneration followed by repeated rounds of regeneration, exhibit degenerative dark patches in skeletal muscle under polarized light. Nondystrophic myopathies are not associated with necrosis or regenerative changes, but result in disorganized myofibers and skeletal muscle weakness. Myopathic zebrafish typically show an overall reduction in birefringence, reflecting the disorganization of sarcomeres. The touch-evoked escape assay involves observing an embryo's swimming behavior in response to tactile stimulation. In comparison to wild-type larvae, mutant larvae frequently display a weak escape contraction, followed by slow swimming or other type of impaired motion that fails to propel the larvae more than a short distance. The advantage of these assays is that disease progression in the same fish type can be monitored in vivo for several days, and that large numbers of fish can be analyzed in a short time relative to higher vertebrates.

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