Cannabis Research and Zebrafish: An Unlikely Dynamic Duo

by | Oct 6, 2020

Israeli researchers are forging ahead with unusual scientific studies to pin down the strain-specific therapeutic benefits of cannabis.

While marijuana research has seen a surge in recent years thanks to loosened legalities, there is still plenty to discover about the plant. There are approximately 730 strains of cannabis, and each strain carries a unique composition of naturally occurring compounds, much like a human’s fingerprint. Furthermore, cannabis research funding has increased by almost 80% in the past 20 years, but it still seems to be a painstakingly slow and expensive process.

This is why the cannabis research community is excited by the Zebrafish- its testing model could be the catalyst needed to speed up the process.

Thanks to progressive cannabis research, most are aware that the different cannabis strains offer unique genetic profiles that can have remarkably varied effects. Studying the application of these different strains, active ingredients, and medicinal potential is usually done using rodents as test subjects. The rodent testing system works, but has its own set of drawbacks, being both time-consuming and resource-draining.

In a proactive response to these shortfalls, Israeli researchers have turned to an unexpected test model, the Zebrafish, to solidify which cannabis strains, terpenes, cannabinoids, and other compounds are best for particular health conditions.

Preliminary research suggests that different types of cannabis strains can have varying effects on health conditions. However, the precise strain testing is challenging and takes time. This is where the Zebrafish comes in. Two companies have recently teamed up and have already begun using the Zebrafish to speed up this testing, and the results look promising.

But, Why the Zebrafish, and How?

The Zebrafish belongs to the minnow family and is a freshwater fish native to South Asia. Most home aquariums include a Zebrafish or two, and many aquarium enthusiasts have probably gazed in appreciation of the fish’s unassuming beauty at some point in time. But the Zebrafish has recently caught the attention of researchers as well. Why?

Because the Zebrafish lacks a skull, researchers can easily monitor the fish’s brain activity. This, combined with the surprising fact that a Zebrafish’s brain activity is eerily similar to that of a human’s (albeit less complex), makes the humble Zebrafish a near-perfect test subject. Biotech companies have jumped at this opportunity to speed up cannabis data identification and collection.

How Are Zebrafish being Used for Cannabis Research?

Camanex ( the applied science arm for cannabis of MIGAL Galilee Research Institute) and Canonic (a subsidiary of Evogene, a biotech company) have teamed up to create a new testing model system based on the Zebrafish. This Zebrafish testing system will help research teams and cannabis companies perform accurate testing on the different cannabis strains and their medical application potential. The results will enable researchers to take a laser-like focus on the various naturally occurring compounds and active ingredients and ultimately identify which active compound is responsible for specific medicinal benefits.

Once there is clear and uncontested data regarding cannabinoids, terpenes, and how the active ingredients interact with the endocannabinoid system, the medicinal application of marijuana can have a sturdy framework for a healthy industry.

How Does it Work?

First, analysts will be able to rapidly identify and categorize the different cannabis strains according to their therapeutic benefits. These are likely to overlap, but this initial identification also allows for further categorization. Once the strains are identified for specific medical benefits, further study is placed on the individual active ingredients and their particular therapeutic effects. Armed with this precision, companies will have a more precise focus point for their medicinal cannabis-based products. Those looking to medicate with cannabis will be able to use this knowledge to make informed decisions about treating their medical condition with cannabis.

The Zebrafish may be a mere minnow, but it is being hailed throughout the research and science community as a promising scientific and biotechnological advancement tool. Although the Zebrafish holds promise for the cannabis community, there are other areas of interest where the Zebrafish could shed some light as well. Barr-llan University has used the Zebrafish to study sleep and chromosome activity. The University of Mississippi has also had success with Zebrafish studies, using the fish to identify mistletoe and its inherent compounds as a potential treatment for epilepsy. Other areas of study include Alzheimer’s, the endocannabinoid system, and opioid systems, especially in addiction and substance abuse.

As outlandish as it sounds, the zebrafish system for rapid identification has proven its worth already. The system has already been successfully used to identify the relevant cannabis strains for the following disorders; pain, seizures, sleeping issues, and even Parkinson’s disease. The current conditions being tested for include anxiety and autism, with more to follow. 

This research approach may be unusual, but it does accelerate the identification of strain-specific cannabis applications and, as such, could be a catalyst for the cannabis industry.