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Whole body makeover, literally

Filter feeding adults of a Botryllodes leachii colony. Credit: Lisa Zondag

Dr Megan Wilson of the University of Otago will investigate how certain animals can completely regenerate their bodies, which could revolutionise human medicine if we could regrow human limbs and organs

Published 2 November 2017

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Dr Megan Wilson in her laboratory at the Department of Anatomy

In humans, our body’s ability to repair itself following injury is limited. However, some animals have the amazing ability to regenerate complex anatomy, and even completely new bodies, from as little as a few hundred cells.

Dr Megan Wilson from the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago, together with scientists from Department of Marine Science (Otago), Israel and Switzerland, have received a Marsden Fund grant to address this, by investigating the underlying cellular mechanisms of such whole body restoration. Their work will focus on how a common marine animal, known as the sea squirt (Botrylloides leachi), can regenerate an entire new adult version of itself in under two weeks, from only a minute piece of tissue.

Currently, very little is known about how the sea squirt is able to regenerate, and why this capacity does not exist in humans. Dr Wilson and her team will characterise the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the regeneration in the sea squirt. To do this they will use state-of-the-art techniques such as cell-tracing, gene editing and genomic analysis to discover the molecular pathways involved in regulating minor injury repair, and compare these to pathways involved in whole body regeneration. They will also determine the role that stem cells play in this regeneration process. 

The researchers aim to address the mystery of why some animals repair or scar, whilst others regenerate whole tissues or organs, or even bodies. A deeper understanding of the nature of the signals that instigate whole body regeneration could have important implications for humans. Imagine the impact on human medicine, if we could regrow human limbs and organs.