Researchers Turn Zebrafish Technicolor to Reveal How Skin Regenerates

Turning the skin's surface into a Skittles-colored sea lets researchers track individual cells.


Skin is a mosaic of millions of cells, shifting and transforming as we scrub, scrape, and, yes, suffer injuries. But because those tiles all pretty much look exactly the same, it’s hard to tell what role each individual cell actually plays in keeping skin intact. Enter Skinbow, a system that colors individual cells to make the skin look like a blanket of Skittles, developed by Duke University scientists studying skin regeneration in tropical zebrafish.

Color coding the cells has made it a lot easier for them to figure out how cells work together to maintain and regenerate the skin, the researchers explain in a new paper, published in the journal Developmental Cell.

An accompanying video, shown in GIF form below, traverses the skin’s multicolor surface, which looks remarkably like a bunker wall after a round of GoldenEye 007 in paintball mode.

Only cells on the skin's surface express the fluorescent proteins.

“It is like you have given each cell an individual barcode,” said Chen-Hui Chen, the lead author on the study, in a release. “You can precisely see how individual cells collectively behave during regeneration.”

In the Skinbow system, the skin cells on the surface of a zebrafish are genetically engineered to randomly express different combinations of red, blue, and green genetic proteins, giving each of them a slightly different hue. Over 70 color combinations are possible, lasting over the course of the cell’s lifetime.

The end result is a pointillist zebrafish, inspired by the likes of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac:

Each cell on the Skinbow fish surface glows a different color, allowing researchers to trace individual cells.

Technicolor fish in hand, the researchers followed the movements and transformations of hundreds of individual skin cells in response to injuries as mild as light exfoliation to the brutal: Fin amputations.

Following more serious injuries, cells were found to swell up from beneath the wound to cover it, after which new cells would quickly be generated and spread to blanket the skin’s surface.

Chen-Hui Chen et al.

Skinbow’s technology is a descendant of the Brainbow system, which painted a rainbow on individual neurons in the brain. It’s hoped that the rainbow fish can be used to study not only normal skin processes but also the way they’re affected by drugs, infections, and disease.

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