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Julia Ganz Studies Zebrafish Enteric Nervous System Using NIH Grant

Julia Ganz will use a new grant to explore the zebrafish’s unique superpower to gain insights that could someday lead to discoveries benefitting people suffering from neurological diseases of digestive system. Ganz, an assistant professor of integrative biology in the MSU College of Natural Science (NatSci), recently received a two-year, $439,408 grant from the National Institutes of Health. She’ll study zebrafish, which, unlike mammals, can repair and even replace a lot of parts of their body – including fins, heart, and parts of its nervous system. Her work will focus on the zebrafish enteric nervous system (ENS) which she explained is a web of neurons often referred to as the brain in the gut.

In humans, the ENS is embedded in the wall of the gastrointestinal system from the lower part of the esophagus to the rectum. It controls local blood flow, the transport of mucus and secretions as well as immune and endocrine functions.

A damaged ENS can lead to difficult health disorders. “There are a number of diseases that affect the gut and also affect the enteric nervous system” Julia said. “In the long run, understanding how the zebrafish’s regenerative forces work could help solve other problems in people and make a difference in people’s lives.”

With this project, Julia and her lab will work to both fully understand the scope of the fishes’ ability to regenerate lost neurons and to identify the internal mechanisms that drive their unique response.

The zebrafish also bring a bonus benefit to scientists. They are transparent when young. That gives scientists a great look at the entire gut of the fish.

“We can follow the regenerative process of cells coming back in a live animal,” she said. “Which is great because the ENS is a large and important part of a living beings’ system, and we will be able to capture that in this little fish.”