Scientists Think Salamanders Hold the Key to Limb Generation

Salamanders' immune systems are key to their ability to regrow limbs, and could also underpin their ability to regenerate spinal cords, brain tissue, and even parts of their hearts, scientists have found. The researchers said that understanding the early regulation and timing of this process is critical in identifying pathways permissive for limb regeneration in mammals.

Photograph courtesy of James Godwin.

In research published May 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences researchers from the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) at Monash University, Clayton, Australia, found that when immune cells known as macrophages were systemically removed, salamanders lost their ability to regenerate a limb and instead formed scar tissue. Lead researcher, James Godwin, PhD, said the findings brought researchers a step closer to understanding what conditions were needed for regeneration.

"Previously, we thought that macrophages were negative for regeneration, and this research shows that that's not the case...," he said. "Now, we need to find out exactly how these macrophages are contributing to regeneration. Down the road, this could lead to therapies that tweak the human immune system down a more regenerative pathway."

Salamanders' ability to regenerate allows for the complete functional restoration of any tissue, on any part of the body including organs. The regenerated tissue is scar free and almost perfectly replicates the injury site before damage occurred.

Aside from applications, such as healing spinal cord and brain injuries, Godwin said he believes that studying the healing processes of salamanders could lead to new treatments for a number of common conditions, such as heart and liver diseases, which are linked to fibrosis or scarring. Promotion of scar-free healing would also dramatically improve patients' recovery following surgery. There are indications that there is the capacity for regeneration in a range of animal species, but it has, in most, cases been turned off by evolution.

"Some of these regenerative pathways may still be open to us," Godwin said. "We need to know exactly what salamanders do and how they do it well, so we can reverse-engineer that into human therapies."

Editor's note: This story was adapted from materials provided by Monash University.