Scale development in zebrafish (Danio rerio)


Correspondence to: Dr Jean-Yves Sire, Université Paris 7, Laboratoire d'Anatomie Comparée, Case 7077, 2 place Jussieu, 75251 Paris cedex 05, France.


In the course of an extensive comparative, structural and developmental study of the cranial and postcranial dermal skeleton (teeth and scales) in osteichthyan fishes, we have undertaken investigations on scale development in zebrafish (Danio (Brachydanio) rerio) using alizarin red staining, and light and transmission electron microscopy. The main goal was to know whether zebrafish scales can be used as a model for further research on the processes controlling the development of the dermal skeleton in general, especially epithelial–mesenchymal interactions. Growth series of laboratory bred specimens were used to study in detail: (1) the relationship of scale appearance with size and age; (2) the squamation pattern; and (3) the events taking place in the epidermis and in the dermis, before and during scale initiation and formation, with the aim of searching for morphological indications of epithelial-mesenchymal interactions. Scales form late in ontogeny, generally when zebrafish are more than 8.0 mm in standard length. Within a population of zebrafish of the same age scale appearance is related to standard length, but when comparing populations of different age the size of the fish at scale appearance is also related to age. Scales always appear first in the posterior region of the body and the squamation then extends anteriorly. Scales develop in the dermis but closely apposed to the epidermal–dermal boundary. Cellular modifications occurring in the basal layer of the epidermis and in the dermis before scale formation clearly indicate that the basal epidermal cells differentiate first, before any evidence of differentiation of the progenitors of the scale-forming cells in the dermis. This strongly suggests that scale differentiation could be initiated by the epidermal basal layer cells which probably produce a molecular signal towards the dermis below. Subsequently dermal cells accumulate close to the epidermis, and differentiate to form scale papillae. The late formation of the scales during ontogeny is due to a late colonisation of the dermis by the progenitors of the scale-forming cells. Because of their late formation during ontogeny and of their regular pattern of development, scales in zebrafish represent a good model for further investigations on the general mechanisms of epithelial-mesenchymal interactions during dermal skeleton development, and in particular for the study of the gene expression patterns.