Jun 25, 2014 I Paul Seaburn

Salamanders Give an Arm and a Leg to Help Humans Without One

While mechanical science has done wonders creating artificial limbs, medical science is far behind the animal world in figuring out how to regenerate a limb like salamanders do. Now these lizard-like amphibians may have finally shared their secret.

Salamanders are famous for their ability to lose a body part and replace it within days, including legs, tails, hearts, eyes, spinal cords and brain tissue. This remarkable regeneration ability does not diminish with age and the replacement part looks exactly the same as the one lost. How is this possible?

Regeneration 570x118
The progression of a limb regeneration.

According to a study published in Stem Cell Reports this week, Dr. Max Yun at the University College London Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology and a team of researchers used red-spotted newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) to study the ERK (extracellular signal-regulated kinases) pathway - a chain of proteins inside a cell that carries signals from the surface to the DNA in the nucleus. In salamanders, this pathway is constantly active in and around the area where a body part is cut off, sending reprogramming information to the nucleus to form new cells which grow into the new body part. According to Yun, it could work the same in humans:

Say you lose most of your arm; you need to generate enough cells to create a new arm. The way [these proteins] do it is to reprogram the adult cells that remain in the stump, and those adult cells proliferate to make more of themselves and differentiate to make new tissues.

Unfortunately, human and mammal cells can only briefly activate the ERK pathway. Yun’s team was able to stimulate the pathway in human cells for up to two hours, far short of the time needed to create a new limb. However, the knowledge of the ERK pathway will help future scientists unlock the process, according to Yun.

We’d have to find ways of activating the ERK pathway in the adult tissues in humans, in this case to regrow an arm. There are probably other things that we have to manipulate for the process to go well, but this is quite an important part of it.

Now, if salamanders could only show us how to grow limbs that can climb walls.

Paul Seaburn
Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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