It’s a cruel, cruel world out there, and the ability to regenerate lost cells and tissue makes it easier to survive it. When we get a cut on our skin or chip a nail, it heals and grows back. Other animals take regeneration to much greater extremes: Certain lizards can regrow entire legs or tails; some fish can fully repair complex organs like the retina; and a few organisms like worms or jellyfish can be completely sliced in half and bounce back like it was no big deal.
Enter the three-banded panther worm, a surefire inductee to the regeneration hall of fame. Found mostly in the Caribbean, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Japan, this little guy (barely half a millimeter long) can regenerate anything. Cut off its head, and a new one will appear, complete with a mouth and brain and all the other good stuff. Cut it into multiple segments, and each part will grow into its own independent worm in just a few weeks.
To learn how the three-banded panther worm does it, scientists taught it a new trick: glowing-in-the-dark. In a new paper published in Developmental Cell, Harvard University researchers genetically modified the three-banded panther worm to produce a fluorescent green glow. The goal is to visualize the regeneration process in these worms with high precision and learn possibilities into how we could simulate the same kind of regeneration process to repair broken limbs and organs more rapidly or even prevent aging.
“We don't know how any one of these cells actually behave in the animal during regeneration,” lead author Mansi Srivastava, an evolutionary biologist from Harvard University, said in a statement. These new fluorescent worms “will allow us to watch the cells in the context of the animal as it regenerates.”
So far, Srivastava and her colleagues have learned quite a bit in how the three-banded panther worm’s muscle fibers connect to each other and to other cells, and how these cells learn to develop new extensions when necessary.
They’ve also set up future work in isolating the genes that are critical in regeneration. Scientists could turn certain genes on and off in the worms and use the green glow to observe how the regeneration process is positively or negatively affected.
Knowing which genes are important could help us develop gene therapy techniques that could help animals or humans regenerate damaged tissue, organs, or whole limbs. Way down the road, these insights might also lead to breakthroughs in longevity and enabling humans to be healthy and spry even in very old age.
Who would have thought a worm that’s smaller than the width of a credit card could be hoarding such big secrets on how to live well?