In the Spider-Man comics by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, Dr. Curt Connors, a scientist who lost his arm during a war, is obsessed with replicating the ability of lizards to regrow lost body parts. He finally cracks the problem, but unfortunately his serum has the side-effect of transforming him into The Lizard, a green, feral reptilian monster that commits crimes and eventually eats Connors’ own son.
This week real-life scientists have announced they have also cracked the problem of how lizards regenerate and that the knowledge might be used to regrow human tissue, maybe even limbs. Let’s hope Lee and Ditko were wrong about that whole green monster thing, though.
Researchers at Arizona State University studied the genetic makeup of the green anole lizard, which can shed its tail to escape predators and then grow it back. They say they’ve found the genes that are “turned on” by the lizard to allow it to regenerate.
“Lizards basically share the same toolbox of genes as humans,” said lead author Kenro Kusumi, professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Lizards are the most closely-related animals to humans that can regenerate entire appendages. We discovered that they turn on at least 326 genes in specific regions of the regenerating tail, including genes involved in embryonic development, response to hormonal signals and wound healing.”
The researchers say they’ve identified a type of “satellite cell” that the lizard uses to regrow a lost tail. The genes and cells needed for the trick aren’t unique to lizards, humans have them, too.
“Using next-generation technologies to sequence all the genes expressed during regeneration, we have unlocked the mystery of what genes are needed to regrow the lizard tail,” said Kusumi. “By following the genetic recipe for regeneration that is found in lizards, and then harnessing those same genes in human cells, it may be possible to regrow new cartilage, muscle or even spinal cord in the future.”
In addition to the distant hope of growing back a whole new arm or leg, researchers also hope the new knowledge can help create treatments for spinal cord injuries, birth defects, and diseases like arthritis.
[Source: Arizona State University]
Image of green anole lizard by Paul Hirst via Wikimedia Commons