Interview With a Scientist: Unlocking the Secrets of Animal Regeneration With Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado

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 Link to external web site, 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.

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A Scientist’s Exploration of Regeneration

Viravuth (“Voot”) Yin, standing with arms crossed and smiling in front of a shelves holding tanks of zebrafish in his lab. Viravuth (“Voot”) Yin, associate professor of regenerative biology and medicine at MDI Biological Laboratory and chief scientific officer at Novo Biosciences, Inc., in Bar Harbor, Maine. Credit: MDI Biological Laboratory.

In 1980, a week after his 6th birthday, Viravuth (“Voot”) Yin immigrated with his mother, grandfather, and three siblings from Cambodia to the United States. Everything they owned fit into a single, 18-inch carry-on bag. They had to build new lives from almost nothing. So, it’s perhaps fitting that Yin studies regeneration, the fascinating ability of some animals, such as salamanders, sea stars, and zebrafish, to regrow damaged body parts, essentially from scratch.

Yin’s path wasn’t always smooth. His family settled in Hartford, Connecticut, near an uncle who had been granted asylum during the Vietnam War. Yin got into a lot of trouble in school, trying to learn a new culture and fit in. Things improved when his mother moved him and his siblings to West Hartford, well known for its strong schools.

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Amazing Organisms and the Lessons They Can Teach Us

What do you have in common with rodents, birds, and reptiles? A lot more than you might think. These creatures have organs and body systems very similar to our own: a skeleton, digestive tract, brain, nervous system, heart, network of blood vessels, and more. Even so-called “simple” organisms such as insects and worms use essentially the same genetic and molecular pathways we do. Studying these organisms provides a deeper understanding of human biology in health and disease, and makes possible new ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat a wide range of conditions.

Historically, scientists have relied on a few key organisms, including bacteria, fruit flies, rats, and mice, to study the basic life processes that run bodily functions. In recent years, scientists have begun to add other organisms to their toolkits. Many of these newer research organisms are particularly well suited for a specific type of investigation. For example, the small, freshwater zebrafish grows quickly and has transparent embryos and see-through eggs, making it ideal for examining how organs develop. Organisms such as flatworms, salamanders, and sea urchins can regrow whole limbs, suggesting they hold clues about how to improve wound healing and tissue regeneration in humans.

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Zebrafish Scrapbook

Name: Danio rerio Hometown: Freshwater ponds and rivers of India, Nepal, and neighboring countries Occupation: Research Long-term goal: Solving the basic mysteries of life Work site: More than 600 science labs worldwide
Danio rerio That’s me and some other zebrafish, swimming in a tank in one of the more than 600 labs around the world that use us to study embryo development, genetics, and all kinds of human diseases. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Azul.

Apart from the tell-tale stripes that give me my nickname, zebrafish, I look a lot like your standard minnow swimming in the shallows of any pond, lake, or river. But I like to think I’m more important than that. In fact, researchers around the world have turned to me and my extended family to understand some of the most basic mysteries of life. From studying us, they’re learning about how embryos develop, how cancer works, and whether someday humans might be able to rebuild a heart, repair a spinal cord injury, or regrow a severed limb.

Why us? Because zebrafish are pretty special and researchers think we’re easy to work with. First, unlike your standard lab mouse or rat, we lay lots of eggs, producing baby fish that grow up fast. We develop outside our mothers and go from egg to embryo to free-swimming larva in just 3 days (check out this video Exit icon of how we grow, cell by cell, during the first 24 hours). Within 3 months, we’re fully mature.

Not only do zebrafish moms have many babies at the same time, and not only do these babies grow up quickly, but our eggs and embryos are see-through, so scientists can literally watch us grow one cell at a time. We stay mostly transparent for a few weeks after hatching. That makes it super easy for scientists to monitor us for both normal and abnormal development. In fact, scientists have learned how to turn off the genes that give our skin its color. These zebrafish, named casper, after the “friendly ghost” of cartoon fame, stay semi-transparent, or translucent, through adulthood.

And last, but certainly not least, did I mention that we can regenerate? If parts of my body are damaged, even to a significant degree, they can regrow. This holds true for my heart, fins, spinal cord, and even brain tissue. Our regenerative capacity is seemingly unlimited; my caudal fin, for example, can grow back dozens of times. Continue reading “Zebrafish Scrapbook”

Sea Urchin Regeneration May Help Us Understand Aging

Sea urchin

The variegated sea urchin typically lives for about 4 years in the wild. The close-up view shows the sea urchin’s spines and tube feet that regrew after being removed 15 days earlier. Credit: Helena Reinardy (left) and Andrea Bodnar (right), Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.

If you’ve ever been to the beach and walked around the rocks during low tide, you’ve probably seen a sea urchin. You may not have known that sea urchins found along the Pacific shore can live for more than 100 years. What’s even cooler is that, as they age, they don’t seem to lose their abilities to reproduce or regenerate damaged body parts. While different species of sea urchins have varying life expectancies, they all seem to share fountain-of-youth characteristics. For these and other reasons, scientists study sea urchins to investigate aging and other basic life processes. Continue reading “Sea Urchin Regeneration May Help Us Understand Aging”

Visualizing Skin Regeneration in Real Time

Top: Colorful skin cells on a zebrafish . Bottom: Cells from the outer surface of the scale.
More than 70 Skinbow colors distinguish hundreds of live cells from a tiny bit (0.0003348 square inches) of skin on the tail fin of an adult zebrafish. The bottom image shows the cells on the outer surface of a scale. Credit: Chen-Hui Chen, Duke University.

Zebrafish, blue-and-white-striped fish that are about 1.5 inches long, can regrow injured or lost fins. This feature makes the small fish a useful model organism for scientists who study tissue regeneration.

To better understand how zebrafish skin recovers after a scrape or amputation, researchers led by Kenneth Poss of Duke University tracked thousands of skin cells in real time. They found that lifespans of individual skin cells on the surface were 8 to 9 days on average and that the entire skin surface turned over in 20 days.

The scientists used an imaging technique they developed called “Skinbow,” which essentially shows the fish’s outer layer of skin cells in a spectrum of colors when viewed under a microscope. Skinbow is based on a technique created to study nerve cells in mice, another model organism.

The research team’s color-coded experiments revealed several unexpected cellular responses during tissue repair and replacement. The scientists plan to incorporate additional imaging techniques to generate an even more detailed picture of the tissue regeneration process.

The NIH director showcased the Skinbow technique and these images on his blog, writing: “You can see more than 70 detectable Skinbow colors that make individual cells as visually distinct from one another as jellybeans in a jar.”

This work was funded in part by NIH under grant R01GM074057.