You might not care how hard or easy it is to image zebrafish larvae, but you should. Zebrafish larvae are among the most commonly-used laboratory animals, useful for studies of human diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Now, engineers from MIT have developed a system that dramatically streamlines the zebrafish-imaging process. Whereas traditional manual viewing takes about ten minutes per fish, a new system developed by engineers at MIT can get the job done in just 19 seconds.

Zebrafish are so commonly used in laboratories because they are genetically similar to humans, sharing much of the same anatomy and biochemistry. The fish take only seven days to fully develop, with organs visible inside their transparent bodies within just three – mice and rats take much longer to reach maturity, and you can’t see through them. Because the baby fish are so tiny, however, it takes some doing to get them properly positioned under a microscope, which limits their usefulness in certain studies.

The new system developed at MIT pumps fish from a holding area onto a viewing platform, where they are automatically rotated to display the desired body part. The fish remain unharmed throughout the process. The team has already demonstrated the system’s capabilities, by imaging the neurons that project from the larvae’s retinas to their brains.

The MIT engineers have applied for a patent, and are looking into commercializing their system for use in drug trials, where a large number of animals need to be analyzed in quick succession. They are also looking into speeding up the process, and more efficiently processing the data that it produces.

“There is significant need for high-throughput [automated] studies on whole animals, at high resolution,” said Mehmet Fatih Yanik, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “People are currently doing this manually, which is too slow. Ours is the only system that can take a large library of chemicals and screen it on thousands of vertebrates.”

The research was recently published in the journal Nature Methods.