Worm’s Amazing Regenerative Capacity Tied to Ancient Gene

Most people don't think worms are spectacular. But the tiny flatworm that Northwestern University scientist Dr. Christian Petersen studies can do something quite spectacular indeed: it can regenerate itself from nearly every imaginable injury, including decapitation. When cut in half, it becomes two worms. This amazing ability of the planarian flatworm to regenerate its entire body from a small wedge of tissue has fascinated scientists since the late 1800s. The worms can regrow any missing cell or tissue -- muscle, neurons, epidermis, eyes, even a new brain. Now Petersen and colleague Peter Reddien of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have discovered that an ancient and seldom-studied gene is critical for regeneration in these animals. The findings may have important ramifications for tissue regeneration and repair in humans. The gene, called notum, plays a key role in the regeneration decision-making process. Protein from this gene determines whether a head or tail will regrow at appropriate amputation sites, the researchers found. "These worms are superstars in regeneration, and we want to learn how they restore missing body parts," said Dr. Petersen, an assistant professor of molecular biosciences in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. "We anticipate that understanding the details of how regeneration occurs in nature will ultimately have a broad impact on the repair of human tissue." The study is published in the May 13, 2011 issue of the journal Science. Dr. Petersen, a former postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Reddien's lab, is the first author. Dr. Reddien, associate professor of biology at MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, is the other author.
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