What Salamanders Could Teach Scientists About Growing Human Limbs

Regeneration, salamander-style

In an attempt to recreate the plot of multiple recent superhero movies, a team of Australian scientists is looking into the regenerative properties of salamanders–and into how humans can pull off the same trick.

Salamanders, specifically the axolotl, are vertebrates that can regenerate limbs and organs, which sure would be a useful technique for humans to have, too. So researchers, led by James Godwin, of the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University, figured out how salamanders pull it off. Godwin suspected that macrophages, cells that work in the immune system, played a part. When he and his colleagues removed the macrophages from the axolotls, the axolotls couldn’t regenerate limbs: instead, they ended up with scarring and stumps. (A study on that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

Some sort of chemical cocktail is being released by the macrophages, Godwin speculates, and if that’s discovered, maybe the cocktail could be used to on humans to cause regeneration.

That… is pretty ambitious. Although others, like the Department of Defense, have been looking into similar processes, another researcher, speaking with ABC Science, said the technique might be more important for scarless healing, or treating burns. Still, it’s cool to imagine a world where losing a limb doesn’t mean it’s gone forever.

ABC Science