Zebrafish skin is composed of enveloping and basal layers which form a first-line defense system against pathogens. Zebrafish epidermis contains ionocytes and mucous cells that aid secretion of acid/ions or mucous through skin. Previous studies demonstrated that fish skin is extremely sensitive to external stimuli. However, little is known about the molecular mechanisms that modulate skin cell apoptosis in zebrafish. This study aimed to create a platform to conduct conditional skin ablation and determine if it is possible to attenuate apoptotic stimuli by overexpressing potential apoptosis modulating genes in the skin of live animals. A transgenic zebrafish line of Tg(krt4:NTR-hKikGR)(cy17) (killer line), which can conditionally trigger apoptosis in superficial skin cells, was first established. When the killer line was incubated with the prodrug metrodinazole, the superficial skin displayed extensive apoptosis as judged by detection of massive TUNEL- and active caspase 3-positive signals. Great reductions in NTR-hKikGR(+) fluorescent signals accompanied epidermal cell apoptosis. This indicated that NTR-hKikGR(+) signal fluorescence can be utilized to evaluate apoptotic events in vivo. After removal of metrodinazole, the skin integrity progressively recovered and NTR-hKikGR(+) fluorescent signals gradually restored. In contrast, either crossing the killer line with testing lines or transiently injecting the killer line with testing vectors that expressed human constitutive active Akt1, mouse constitutive active Stat3, or HPV16 E6 element displayed apoptosis-resistant phenotypes to cytotoxic metrodinazole as judged by the loss of reduction in NTR-hKikGR(+) fluorescent signaling. The killer/testing line binary system established in the current study demonstrates a nitroreductase/metrodinazole system that can be utilized to conditionally perform skin ablation in a real-time manner, and provides a valuable tool to visualize and quantify the anti-apoptotic potential of interesting target genes in vivo. The current work identifies a potential use for transgenic zebrafish as a high-throughput platform to validate potential apoptosis modulators in vivo.
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