Most of what we know comes from intensive study of research organisms—mice, fruit flies, worms, zebrafish, and a few others. But according to Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado , a researcher at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, these research organisms represent only a tiny fraction of all animal species on the planet. Under-studied organisms could reveal important biological phenomena that simply don’t occur in the handful of models typically studied, he says.
Sánchez Alvarado’s work focuses on the planarian, a type of flatworm. Its remarkable ability to regenerate whole bodies from tiny fragments is still not fully understood. In a video interview, Sánchez Alvarado describes his discovery that cells called neoblasts are essential for regeneration. In fact, a tiny fragment of the worm can regenerate a whole body as long as the fragment contains a single neoblast. His team was able to purify neoblasts and study their gene activity, getting us closer to understanding how adult stem cells in a planarian regenerate missing body parts. These discoveries could lead to important applications in regenerative medicine.
Sánchez Alvarado also explained his research at the 2018 Dewitt Stetten Jr. Lecture.
NIGMS has supported Sánchez Alvarado’s work since 1994 under grants F32GM016775, R01GM057260, R37GM057260, and R01GM088269. He has also received support from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.