What do zebrafish and cancer have in common? This sounds like the beginning of a disrespectful joke, but the Zebrafish Lab on the BYU-Idaho campus takes this question seriously.

Caleb Bailey, a biology professor at BYU-I, leads a lab known as both “Bailey’s Lab” and the “Zebrafish Lab.” Its purpose is to teach students how to do research — a skill they will need for their future careers. They do research on zebrafish in order to understand cancer cells.

Microscopes and equipment in the lab. Photo credit: Haley Hopkins.
Microscopes and equipment in the lab. Photo credit: Haley Hopkins.

Melanocyte cells are in the skin of the fish, under their scales. They form the colors of the stripes.

These cells are also found in human skin. The melanocyte cells are what make up the color of humans’ skin. 

Melanoma is a dangerous type of skin cancer that begins within an out-of-control melanocyte cell, according to the American Cancer Society’s website.

“Melanoma is much less common than some other types of skin cancers,” The American Cancer Society’s website says. “But melanoma is more dangerous because it’s much more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not caught and treated early.” 

Melanocyte cells are mobile cells. They move around. Inside the cells, there are instructions telling them where to go.

“I think of it kind of like a road,” said Ed Sanchez, the lab manager. “If you were in Rexburg and we needed to go to Boise, how do we get there? Through road signs, right? … That sign kind of gives us direction to know ‘Oh, I need to go this way on the road.’ And so the same thing happens with these little cells called melanocytes that form the color on the fish, which is the black stripes.”

The students study to see how the cells move. If they can understand and change that then they will understand and change how cancer moves.

Lab-made fish tanks with the Zebrafish. Photo credit: Haley Hopkins.
Lab-made fish tanks with the Zebrafish. Photo credit: Haley Hopkins.