Regenerative Medicine Utrecht

Student Blog

Nature’s regenerative skills

rɪʤɛnəˈreɪʃn = the formation of new animal or plant tissue

As a child I was constantly amazed (and still am) by the beauty of nature and how it develops. A tiny seed can generate a large sunflower, a caterpillar can transform into a butterfly, and a tree can filter our air.

Once upon a time in Costa Rica, I pulled a T-shirt from my closet where a tiny lizard had been hiding. While he was making his escape, he left his tail behind. I remember I was both mortified and astonished: he just lost a body part but kept on living as though nothing happened! My veterinarian mother later told me that this was his defence mechanism and that he could regrow his tail.

During evolution, humans have lost their tail because it wasn’t useful anymore. But if we would lose one of our arms right now, it would be a great burden and we wouldn’t be able to grow a new one. Strikingly, starfish can! As long as its central nerve ring remains intact, the starfish can regenerate all of its arms.

Nature has a few more examples of incredible creatures that can regenerate parts of themselves. Spiders can regrow their legs. Deer can renew their antlers. Sea cucumbers can regenerate everything. The spiny mouse regenerates injured skin without any scarring. When you cut a flatworm in half, it will just form two new replicas. And the axolotl (an amphibian) can regenerate many of its body parts, including its brain. Snail fur (Latin name Hydractinia) can also regrow their “heads”.

It may not come as a surprise that these animals are a popular subject of scientific study. Their abilities raise many questions, for example why some creatures can regenerate body parts, but others can’t. Understanding their mechanisms of regeneration can give us clues on how to regenerate our own injured or lost body parts or tissues.

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Iris Otto is a PhD researcher in the Regenerative Medicine Center Utrecht. She works on tissue engineering cartilage and 3D printing of ear implants for children with ear defects. Through these blog posts she hopes to give the reader a peek into the intriguing world of the life sciences.