Zebrafish for a Cleaner Food Supply

Zebrafish might be the detectives we need to track down obesogens in the food supply — little fishy sleuths to help scientists identify which of the myriad compounds making their way into our food might be contributing to obesity.

The notion of obesogens in the food supply causing excess obesity is getting more and more attention. But we have way too many suspected culprits and not enough evidence to know which of them — if any — are really a problem. The unwanted stuff that gets into our food has a number of sources:How Stuff Gets into Our Food

  1. Industry produces waste, such as persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals, that enters the water and air.
  2. Farming provides a point of entry for industrial waste compounds, as well as pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics used to increase food yields.
  3. Processing food introduces other contaminants. Solvents serve to remove gross contaminants. Sweeteners, emulsifiers, preservatives, colors, and other ingredients are added to produce the final food product.
  4. Packaging components bring food into contact with compounds such as bisphenol A (BPA) and pthalates.
  5. Preparing foods to serve by heating them in their packages with a microwave oven can cause more contaminants to move from the package into the food.

Having so many sources and so many suspects that might be contributing to obesity is the problem our fishy sleuths can help to solve. We’re talking about very small quantities of substances that have already been studied for toxicity in other ways. Tests for the potential of these compounds to cause cancer are well defined. Tests for the potential to disrupt our metabolism and cause obesity are not so well defined.

That’s where the zebrafish might help. In Current Obesity Reports, Barbara Corkey and colleagues describe the need for a systematic approach to isolating the compounds that pose the greatest risk. They say:

As a new and rigorous in vivo model, zebrafish are an increasingly valuable screening model for the ability of compounds to cause obesity. Zebrafish hold an advantage over cell culture in that they are a complete biological system. Compared to mice, zebrafish experiments can be done more rapidly (11 days vs. about 3 months) and in a much smaller space.

Gathering the data for sound decisions will be far more productive than the guessing game that presently rules the day. At present, we neither have enough information to support or refute concerns about the potential of these compounds to cause obesity.

Click here to read more in Current Obesity Reports, here to read more in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, and here to read more in Toxicological Sciences.

Zebrafish, photograph © Thierry Marysael / flickr

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