Professor Tanya Whitfield

School of Biosciences

Professor of Developmental Biology

Director of Research
+44 114 222 2350

Full contact details

Professor Tanya Whitfield
School of Biosciences
Firth Court
Western Bank
S10 2TN
  • 2016-present: Professor of Developmental Biology, University of Sheffield.
  • 2013-2015: Reader in Developmental Biology, University of Sheffield.
  • 2004-2012: Senior Lecturer, University of Sheffield.
  • 1997-2004: Lecturer, University of Sheffield.
  • 1994-1997: Imperial Cancer Research Fund Postdoctoral Fellow and Linacre College Junior Research Fellow, Developmental Biology Unit, University of Oxford, and Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Research Advisor: Dr Julian Lewis.
  • 1994: EMBO Short Term Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany. Research Advisor: Professor Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard.
  • 1992-1994: Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Zoology and Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research Campaign Institute, University of Cambridge. Research Advisor: Professor Chris Wylie.
  • 1989-1992: Wellcome PhD student, Department of Zoology and Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research Campaign Institute, University of Cambridge. Research Advisor: Professor Chris Wylie.
  • 1986-1989: BA Natural Sciences (Zoology), University of Cambridge.
Research interests

My group uses the zebrafish as a model organism to study the development and function of vertebrate sensory systems. Our main focus is the inner ear, the organ of hearing and balance.

Development of the fish inner ear

Summary for the non-specialist

The inner ear is the organ that mediates our senses of hearing and balance. It consists of an intricate fluid-filled labyrinth housing a variety of extraordinarily sensitive sensory structures that respond to sound, movement and gravity.

For correct inner ear function it is essential that each of these components  form in exactly the right place in the embryo, as any abnormalities can lead to  deafness or balance disorders. Indeed, congenital deafness is an important clinical condition, affecting approximately one in every thousand children at birth.

Our aim is to understand how the inner ear develops in the embryo, and the mechanisms that ensure that the different cell types in the ear arise in the correct positions so that they can function accurately.

We use embryos of a small tropical fish, the zebrafish, in our research, as this fish is a superb model for the study of vertebrate inner ear development.

    Technical summary

    Current projects in the Whitfield lab include:

    • Morphogenesis and patterning in the otic placode and vesicle

    We are identifying pathways of gene activity that lead to correct axial patterning of the otic epithelium, together with establishment of the neurogenic, sensory and non-sensory domains in the developing ear. We have a long-standing interest in the roles that Hedgehog, Fgf and BMP signalling play in these processes.

    Development of the vestibular system

    The adult inner ear consists of three interconnected ducts of non-sensory epithelium—the semicircular canals—and various chambers containing sensory hair cells. We are examining zebrafish lines that develop with morphological defects of the semicircular canal system. We are using light-sheet microscopy to image semicircular canal formation in these lines, and automated tracking of adult fish to measure any balance deficits.

    We are also interested in the formation of the otoliths, biomineralised ‘ear stones’ that sit over patches of sensory hair cells in the ear.  In the zebrafish ear, otoliths are initially tethered to the tips of kinocilia on the sensory hair cells. Later, they adhere to the sensory patch via the otolithic membrane.  We have recently identified two large glycoproteins involved in zebrafish otolith tethering and adhesion.

    Modelling human deafness and vestibular disorders

    Some of our zebrafish lines form models for a variety of human diseases, including Waardenburg-Shah syndrome, Branchio-Oto-Renal syndrome and DiGeorge syndrome.


    A number of drugs used to treat human infections or cancer have ototoxic side effects: they damage sensory hair cells in the ear, leaving a patient with temporary or permanent hearing loss and vestibular impairment. We are using the lateral line of the zebrafish embryo as a screening tool to identify compounds that can protect hair cells from the ototoxic effects of drugs such as neomycin and cisplatin.


    Show: Featured publications All publications

    Journal articles

    All publications

    Journal articles


    • Baxendale S & Whitfield TT (2014) Zebrafish Inner Ear Development and Function, Development of Auditory and Vestibular Systems (pp. 63-105). Elsevier RIS download Bibtex download
    • Alexander EE, Altieri SC, Avraham KB, Bardhan T, Baxendale S, Beraneck M, Bhonker Y, Cardon G, Chen P, Clause A , Contreras J et al (2014) Contributors, Development of Auditory and Vestibular Systems (pp. xi-xiii). Elsevier RIS download Bibtex download
    • Baxendale S & Whitfield TT (2014) Zebrafish Inner Ear Development and Function, Development of Auditory and Vestibular Systems: Fourth Edition (pp. 63-105). RIS download Bibtex download
    • Abbas L & Whitfield TT (2010) The Zebrafish Inner Ear In Perry SF, Ekker M, Farrell AP & Brauner CJ (Ed.), Zebrafish (pp. 123-171). Academic Press RIS download Bibtex download
    • Abbas L & Whitfield TT (2010) 4 The zebrafish inner ear, Zebrafish (pp. 123-171). RIS download Bibtex download

    Conference proceedings papers


    • Jones A, Mendonca T, Whitfield T & Frangi A 'Exploring the curves of the zebrafish inner ear'. RIS download Bibtex download
    Research group

    Current group members

    Lab alumni

    • Dr Davide Baldera
    • Dr Elvira Diamantopoulou
    • Dr Tania Mendonca
    • Dr Ryan Hartwell
    • Dr Sarah Burbridge
    • Dr Esther Maier
    • Dr Georgina Stooke-Vaughan
    • Dr Lauren Buck
    • Dr Fan-Suo Geng
    • Dr Bernardo Blanco-Sánchez
    • Dr Giuliano Giuliani
    • Dr Leila Abbas
    • Dr Kate Hammond
    • Mrs Joanne Spencer
    • Ms Helen Loynes
    • Ms Lucy Smith
    • Dr Catriona Mowbray

    We welcome enquiries about opportunities for postdoctoral or postgraduate study in the lab.  Any funding opportunities will be listed here when available, but we are also glad to hear from postdocs who are interested in preparing fellowship applications (e.g. Marie Sklowodska-Curie Actions - Individual Fellowships).  Please contact:

    Professor Tanya Whitfield 

    Visit our blog to find out about life in the lab.

    Teaching activities

    Current undergraduate taught modules

    Level 1:

    • BMS109 Laboratory Skills in BMS
    • BMS110 Research Topics in Biomedicine

    Level 3:

    • BMS339 Patients as Educators Project
    • BMS349 Extended Library Project
    • BMS397 Laboratory Research Project

    Tutor to undergraduates at all 3 levels

    Current postgraduate (Masters Level) modules

    • BMS6052 Laboratory Research Project - examiner
    • BMS6083 Practical Developmental Biology - co-ordinator