College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

A Mere Minnow Gives Mighty Medical Insights

Developmental biologist Joshua Bloomekatz uses zebrafish to probe the origins of heart cells.

Joshua Bloomekatz

Joshua Bloomekatz

JANUARY 22, 2020 BY ABIGAIL MEISEL

If you want to understand a fundamental mystery of life, look no farther than a two-inch fish.

Using zebrafish, a freshwater breed that’s in the minnow family, to understand how hearts develop in embryos, Joshua Bloomekatz, an assistant professor in the University of Mississippi Department of Biology, is breaking new ground.

Bloomekatz’s research focuses on the formation of two types of embryonic heart cells: some will become the muscle cells that pump blood from the heart; others will develop into the cells that will become blood vessels.

“In the beginning of heart development, the cells come together as a tube for pumping blood,” he said.  “Then the cells develop ‘identities.’ They separate into myocardial [muscle] cells and the endothelial [blood vessel] cells that line the heart.”

Seeing how cells come to “specialize” helps developmental scientists like Bloomekatz discover how embryos develops from a single-cell into complex beings, like humans.

Zebrafish make excellent subjects for cardiac research because they are translucent and develop externally, away from the mother.

Using the biology department’s laser-scanning confocal microscope, the highest standard in confocal microscopes, Bloomekatz is able not only to get crisp images of zebrafishes’ embryonic heart cells, but also to see them move in real time in short videos produced by his lab.

“If we understand how the process works, we can also understand how it doesn’t work,” said Bloomekatz.  “This brings us closer to comprehending why conditions like congenital heart disease occur—and we can make significant advances in both prevention and treatment.”

“The cells in the heart will be with you for the rest of your life,” Bloomekatz said. “Our heart cells do not renew themselves very well, so the cells you have at 14 will be the same you have at 84. That’s why you have to take really good care of your heart.”

Bloomekatz came to the university in 2017.

“I wanted to do research at an R1 university,” he said, referring to UM’s rank as a leading U.S. research institution.

Bloomekatz arrived on campus after completing a postdoctoral program in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine—one of the leading research programs of its kind in the nation. He earned his B.A. from the University of California Berkeley and his Ph.D. from Weil Cornell Medical College, the medical school of Cornell University.

“Dr. Bloomekatz is an exceptional biologist, whose research is greatly expanding our understanding of heart development,” said Gregg Roman, chair and professor of biology. “His scholarship and mentoring are truly invaluable contributions to the University of Mississippi.”

Bloomekatz teaches both graduate and undergraduate students. Last fall, when he taught a 500-level class about using advanced microscopes like the confocal scope, his class included eight undergrads, freshmen through seniors.

“Students learn the proper techniques by working on their own research projects,” he said.

In his classes, Bloomekatz facilitates students’ curiosity about the biological world and supports their diverse career paths in health sciences.

He says that undergraduate students are integral members of his lab, participating in all aspects of the research process from experimental design to manuscript preparation and presentation.

“I want students to be connected not only to the course material and research techniques but to a supportive intellectual professional and personal community where they learn to think critically and become citizen scientists,” Bloomekatz said.