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Scientists find secret of limb regeneration

Ben Knight · 24 Nov 2011, 13:12

Published: 24 Nov 2011 13:12 GMT+01:00

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Many animals have the ability to re-grow limbs, but the undisputed champion of the art is the zebrafish, a tropical freshwater fish found in the southeastern Himalayan region. The minnow-sized fish can re-grow lost fins, organs, and heart-muscles.

Scientists already knew that the tropical zebrafish somehow uses a special “retinoic acid” to rebuild its limbs, but no-one was sure exactly how this worked. Konstanz doctoral student Nicola Blum, part of a team led by researcher Gerrit Begemann, was the first to show that the substance is essential to regeneration.

“It is a huge success for us,” Begemann told The Local. The work is being hailed as a breakthrough because for over a quarter of a century, scientists have been puzzling over the effect of artificially increasing retinoic acid to regenerate limbs.

“Up to now, no-one has really looked into what the actual function of this acid is. We have shown that retinoic acid is actually essential to the process,” said Begemann.

Before the zebrafish’s fins regenerate, the wound is closed with multiple layers of tissue. The cells beneath the stump then lose their identity and form what is called blastema. Researchers found that the fish uses a special genetic trick that allows the acid to control the formation of blastema, which means the animal is able to produce a store of cells that can rebuild the fin.

Retinoic acid is produced by animals, including humans, from vitamin A and can activate the necessary genes for regeneration. It has been shown that pregnant women who do not take enough vitamin A in their diet can have underdeveloped foetuses.

But that does not mean that some mega-vitamin A supplements can help amputees grow their legs back. “I wish I could say there is some medical application,” said Begemann. “The problem is humans can’t regenerate tissue. And at the moment we don’t understand enough about why not.”

“Children under five or six, for example, who lose part of their finger up to the first knuckle can regenerate them,” he explained. “As long as you don’t sew the wound up and just clean it. But we don’t know why we lose that ability so young in life. Ultimately we want to know why. The application for humans is a long way away, unfortunately.”

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Nor would some canny future genetic engineering help matters.

“No, that is utopian at the moment,” said Begemann. “And I wouldn’t support that ethically either. Interfering in human genes is ethically questionable and not really possible at the moment anyway.”

Ben Knight (ben.knight@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

14:15 November 24, 2011 by Loth
Regrowing limbs would be a great thing but even better would be organs. Like a new heart and more.
17:19 November 24, 2011 by avinicp7
Nice information and good to see scientific articles represented in news to encourage people. But I think there are no limbs in fish (except pectoral fins which are similar to limbs in mammals and this study deal with caudal fins).

"Researchers found that the fish uses a special genetic trick that allows the acid to control the formation of blastema, which means the animal is able to produce a store of cells that can rebuild the limb"----- it cannot rebuild a limb but the fin.

(there are also theories, how we got limbs from fins during evolution.....fin to limb transition)

I think its better to state things as they are :)
08:32 November 25, 2011 by catjones
@Loth...actually organs like ears, skin and heart muscle are being 'created' using the body's own tissue and stem cells.
21:38 November 25, 2011 by Enough
And some could even regrow their brains!
19:55 November 28, 2011 by rwk
The reason we can't regrow organs may be to prevent us from getting cancer. Perhaps our biology is not sophisticated to control such regrowth without raising the likelihood of cancer.
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