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A Wilder View: Secret to regenerating limbs may be found in the wild

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Posted at 12:54 PM, Apr 19, 2023

MISSOULA - Losing a limb can be a tough pill to swallow but the secret to regenerating your own limbs might be found in the wild.

If you get a cut or break a bone it’ll heal but if you lose an arm it’s unfortunately not coming back.

The loss of limbs affects almost 2 million people in the United States. Prosthetic limbs are an option for some of those people, but they have limited functionality.

One day these appendages made primarily of plastic and carbon fiber could be traded in for your own regenerated limb thanks to studying wildlife.

In the wild, there’s no one to stitch you up so some animals have evolved to regenerate body parts.

The majority of lizards can lose and regrow their tails while starfish can grow a whole new body from a lost limb.

Additionally, flatworms and hydra can regrow their entire bodies from only a tiny piece of their original selves.

But the real MVP goes to a salamander seemingly stuck in metamorphosis, the axolotl.

Besides being ridiculously adorable and always having a smile on their face they are the only vertebrate that can regenerate body parts no matter their age.

It can replace entire missing limbs, internal organs, the heart, its spinal cord and even its neurons and part of its brain.

For an axolotl, a very special kind of skin covers the wound and inside there are a bunch of cells.

These cells divide and divide forming a cone-shaped structure known as a blastema.

The cells that make up the blastema are thought to be bone, cartilage, muscle, or other cells that de-differentiate or lose their identity.

These cells revert back to an earlier developmental stage.

As a result, the cell becomes another cell type that is specialized in carrying out a specific rather than a generalized function.

Although this is similar to stem cells, they aren’t quite that. Stem cells can become one of many different kinds of cells.

As this process grows it eventually becomes a perfect copy of the lost limb, including nerves and blood vessels that are connected to the rest of the body.

Scientists have identified one molecule in Axolotls called neuregulin-1, which is essential for the regeneration of limbs, lungs, and possibly hearts.

It’s not the golden ticket but a crucial piece to the puzzle.

We are still a long way from figuring out how we as people could use this to regrow limbs, but there is a good amount of hope.

People are obviously not good at growing limbs, but there has been evidence in some children that they can regrow lost fingertips.

But this possibility stops when you are fully grown.

This is because once we’re done growing, the genes that tell our cells to grow new organs are turned off.

And trust us, that’s a good thing because otherwise, things could get really messy — we don’t want to grow a spontaneous foot or a third arm.

But this ability does raise the possibility that people could regenerate limbs.

We share a common ancestor with axolotls that roamed around 350 million years ago, which is beneficial because it means we got many of the same genes from that common ancestor.

We just use them differently.

Dedicated efforts are being made by scientists to pave the way for transferring such findings to mammals such as mice.

That means that one day we will likely unlock our hidden healing powers.

And the millions of people who have suffered limb loss will have a fresh approach to treatment.