Developing a semi-regular health program and sentinel program to monitor the health of your fish can help maintain the overall health of animal welfare over time. This includes improving longevity, breeding performance, disease prevention/control, and more. Ensuring fish are robust and healthy also ensures better scientific data and reproducibility form your experiments. Although zebrafish focused research has advanced, husbandry and diagnostic monitoring have seemed to lag behind in fish facility management. A highly functioning, well-run fish room or facility should have a health program structure consisting of at least a prevention, monitoring, and control component. This will help advance zebrafish husbandry practices and refine zebrafish experimental-centric data.
A health monitoring program could include implementing better quarantine procedures, scheduled screenings, testing (sick, old, or dead) fish as needed, cleaning/disinfecting protocols, recording keeping, and more. In addition to having these activities in place, daily and weekly monitoring of fish in terms of observations and visual analyses is an easy way to tell if fish are or becoming ill. One can look for abnormalities, lesions, and other apparent physical cues in order to gain more insight into fish health. Furthermore, whether it’s in-house or outsourced, having an aquatic diagnostic veterinarian or someone who is capable of performing a necropsy, histopathology test, or bacterial analysis is crucial in order to determine an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan options.
Believe it or not, water quality management and its overarching importance are still overlooked. Water quality treatment plans is a large topic but generally it includes temperature, conductivity, alkalinity, pH, dissolved gases, hardness, nitrate, nitrite, and ammonia. With these parameters, comes along all of the filtration components (mechanical, biological, and chemical) and their functionality in controlling and maintaining these variables at the optimal level and conditions for zebrafish to thrive. Daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules should be created depending on the water quality factor and its life support piece, Poor water quality can affect growth, development, breeding, stress, and a boatload of other factors, so staying on top of this through proper management is key in the success of a zebrafish operation.
Water quality involves employing a collection of different strategies, instruments, and record-keeping tactics in order to properly keep a handle on it. For example, the use of electronic and digital devices (such as sensor probes) and related equipment to help monitor everything can really streamline operational flow. Investing in a centralized environmental control panel and integrating automation into your system whenever possible (such as an automatic dosing system) means it can decrease time, energy, labor, and cost long-term. Alerts and notifications can be added into your system, where you can receive updates via cell or email, which can be a convenient feature to keep tabs on your systems 24/7. On the topic of long-term water quality initiatives, design considerations such as creating redundancy in your system, such as having backup integrations, can save a lot of hassle and stress down the line in and end up being a wise management strategy early on.
In terms of creating organization and standardization in your lab, standard operating procedures can be put in place to organize and layout how and when to test, measure, monitor, and record all of the required variables. These can even be digital to increase accessibility throughout the team. Making sure everyone on the team is on the same page is critical, especially when some lab members may be more or less familiar with the dynamics and procedures in the facility. The use of flowcharts and checklists in your fish room such as how often to calibrate the pH meter or when to flush your pumps can help make these processes easier for everyone involved. Instilling these elements in your facility can improve your water quality management plan.
What I mean by macroenvironment are the elements in and around your fish room you don’t necessarily think about as often – such as heating, air conditioning, ventilation, electrical components, waste, noise, light, temperature, storage, etc. These variables can be important as they all can, directly and indirectly, impact your husbandry operations particularly if you are not aware of how or how to control them. For example, ventilation and airflow must be monitored as you don’t want fungi or mold to become present near fish tanks. Along those lines, room temperature and humidity should be closely watched as if the room is too hot or cold, it can affect health and performance. If these environmental factors are off or need to be adjusted, lab members should know how to adjust certain things or know who to contact in case conditions aren’t in the acceptable range. An example would be contacting facility technicians in order to change something such as the light-dark cycle time.
Other aspects of your fish room that should be managed accordingly include storage and waste. Knowing how to store certain chemicals, compounds, drugs, cleaners, and so on is important so that you follow IACUC rules – and just so you know where everything is, in case you have to do something relatively quickly. Along the lines of storage, having a plan in how to store different feeds is useful – whether it’s different dry formulated feeds or processed live feeds that need to be managed properly to preserve the quality. On the topic of waste, all waste accumulation and disposal usually has set guidelines to follow, so creating a cheat sheet or having the correct SOPs around those areas can be helpful in remembering the step-by-step procedures that must be taken.
Managing the live feed production aspect of a zebrafish facility can be tricky and daunting if it’s not properly run. Whether you are culturing Rotifers or Artemia or both, there are some best practices that should be applied that will help grow clean, robust, and nutritional batches. Many labs struggle with live feeds because not everyone in the fish room has the specialized skills or knowledge to do it from start to finish. Investing in the right people to maintain and manage your zebrafish operations can be key to ensuring a successful production, but also implementing helpful SOPs, equipment, and techniques can make the process much more effective and efficient. Developing a standardized procedure will aid in creating some structure around the process that way, if someone else needs to step in to help maintain the cultures (if you get sick or can’t make it in that day), they can come in and do so by reading an SOP or chart, which will help guide them along.
In terms of a physical culturing system, there are some systems that are more intuitive and easier to maintain than others on the market. Investing in a simple, practical design that yields the quantity needed for your lab is a good approach. When considering design, you also have to consider technique, as the type of culturing system might differ depending on if you want to leverage, for example, a batch culture method versus a semi-continuous culturing system when thinking about Rotifer production. Live feed setups have stayed pretty traditional although as newer technologies and strategies emerge, the processes are becoming better as more research is being done on how to grow Rotifers and Artemia better.
Zebrafish Core Facilities are becoming more common (or more talked about) as many people see their advantages and benefits. The difference between an efficient zebrafish operation and a sub-par one (or average one), is really determined in the beginning overall planning phase and model selection process, when thinking about creating a zebrafish-focused space (whether it be a Core or an individualized zebrafish room). It can be argued that Core facilities are the more effective way to go about utilizing zebrafish throughout institutions, although it might require more strategic planning and investment. Rather than having multiple (satellite or scattered) fish rooms that are managed and maintained by potentially different individuals, you could have one facility/lab manager (and however many technicians) who manages a single, more centralized Core Facility. This facility and manager can provide zebrafish housing, feeding, embryos, and management assistance for all individuals and groups who are utilizing zebrafish as their model animal in some way.
This Core facility is typically built and set up so it is more advanced than say a lone/satellite fish room, such that it could consist of more highly specialized instrumentation and people (or person) that might possess greater expertise and skills in carrying out their job. For example, you can have 1 or 2 people that manage/maintain a Zebrafish Core rather than having 4-5 separated individuals managing several different fish rooms – all with their own filtration units, water quality supplies, etc. Although the Core, might be more of a shared space, it will consist of more advanced equipment and also better assistance/unification provided by a potential Core Facility Manager, who can properly ensure all aspects of staffing, training, husbandry protocols, operational procedures, and research practices.
A zebrafish facility consists of multiple components and spaces for fish, filtration, breeding, experiments, procedures, support, storage, cleaning, and more. All of these different integrated pieces and parts of a facility can be shared amongst various researchers and teams. For example, some procedural activities related to zebrafish-related research include breeding, microinjection, fin clipping, tagging, and microscopy. If each research group purchased these components separately from within the same institution, it would probably cost a fortune, but if a bigger, better planned, integrated facility was built incorporating everyone’s current and future needs, that might be the most effective plan when considering design and strategy.