Sleep can wait - and wait - with some fish

August 30, 2018

Suzanne McGaugh and colleagues embarked on an NIH-funded study to search for genes that regulate sleep and feeding in blind cave fish.

Cave fish

Sleeping and eating are linked in many species and often there’s a tradeoff between the two activities.

Take Mexican cave tetras  fish. Some populations of the cave-dwelling variety of the species dramatically reduced their sleep amounts, likely in their quest to acquire enough nutrients in an environment where access to food fluctuates.

Suzanne McGaugh, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, is embarking on a multi-year collaboration with colleagues in Florida Atlantic University's Jupiter Life Science Initiative and Stowers Institute for Medical Research. The research team received a four-year, $1.68 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to find out whether there’s a genetic basis for this rather unique ability. The researchers will draw on diverse areas of expertise from quantitative genetics to neuroscience in the process.

“We think lack of sleep is related to variations in food availability,” says McGaugh. “When food is available, it’s likely that they need to spend as much time possible eating. There is evidence that sleeping and feeding share some genetic regulators, so we are looking for a possible genetic basis for this behavior.”

Mexican tetra fish are particularly well suited for this task since some live in caves and some live in open surface water making it a bit easier to identify traits that are meaningful by comparing the two distinct but related populations. The results could have implications for human health.

“We know from past work in our labs that many of the genes involved in cave fish sleep and eating are involved for humans,” says McGaugh. “We are learning a lot about human disease and what’s physiologically possible from cave fish. Things we’d consider disease states are normal in cave fish.” Ultimately, the team’s findings could provide new drug targets for treating insomnia and other sleep disorders.

– Stephanie Xenos