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Scientists have developed a revolutionary new technique to detect hazardous chemicals: 'It's way more efficient'

"Seventy percent of the genes in zebrafish have human counterparts."

"Seventy percent of the genes in zebrafish have human counterparts."

Photo Credit: iStock

Exposure to toxic chemicals threatens human health and development, but it's often difficult to determine which chemicals cause which problems.

A new technique developed by researchers at the University of California, Davis College of Biological Sciences has simplified the process — with help from some surprising assistants. 

In research summarized by Phys.org, professors Sean Burgess and Bruce Draper have developed a new strain of zebrafish that can make clear their sex through a red or green glow, allowing scientists to establish the environmental conditions that led to them being male or female.

It's all a bit of a puzzle, so let's step back and add some of the missing pieces.

In California's Central Valley, residents have a higher risk of exposure to pesticides because agricultural production sites are in the area, per Phys.org. This has the potential to cause health issues, especially in terms of reproductive health, as chemicals can affect fetal development.   

It is during this period that the cells that will go on to produce sperm begin to form, so the impact won't be known until those children grow up and have their own kids. The study aims to identify those harmful chemicals that cause health problems in weeks rather than over the course of decades.

But how do fish come into the frame?

"Seventy percent of the genes in zebrafish have human counterparts," Draper said, per Phys.org. So, that presents a useful starting point to detect chemical interference in cells. However, the sex of zebrafish is also not determined by X or Y chromosomes. Instead, environmental factors have the biggest bearing.

If fish larvae in captivity are exposed to chemicals, it's more likely they will develop as males. So the genetically modified fish that glow different colors depending on their sex can be identified easily, allowing scientists to understand the effect of certain chemicals on reproductive health. 

"We should be able to determine the sex of a cohort of 80 animals, almost simultaneously, just by taking a picture," Draper added. "It's way more efficient than anything else out there right now."

It's a revolutionary method, and it could help to rapidly increase our understanding of the effect certain pollutants have on reproductive health. 

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