Brain and Body

Can Humans Regrow Limbs? Researchers Think So

April 11, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Royal starfish (Astropecten articulatus)
Photo credit: TheMargue/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Forget prosthetics. Researchers from Duke University want to awaken the genetic elements associated with limb regrowth, a trait found in many creatures, notably starfish.

According to researchers from Duke University, far back in the roots of humanity's evolutionary past — long before we shed our gills or formed opposable thumbs — was a common ancestor with the ability to regrow limbs, similar to today's salamanders and zebrafish.

Of course, humans can not regrow limbs, but researchers at Duke have found that the genetic mechanisms associated with regeneration in modern species and our ancestors also lie dormant within the human genome.

"Our study points to a way that we could potentially awaken the genes responsible for regeneration that we all carry within us," said Kenneth D. Poss, senior author of the study and professor of cell biology at Duke University School of Medicine. "We want to know how regeneration happens, with the ultimate goal of helping humans realize their full regenerative potential."

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By analyzing the regenerative abilities of zebrafish, the researchers at Duke were able to identify and pinpoint the genetic elements responsible for regeneration, and in collaboration with Brian L. Black, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, the researchers were successfully able to activate the ability in mice.  


Zebrafish (pictured above) are known for their ability to regenerate damanged body tissue. Photo credit: Marrabbio2/Wikimedia Commons

"We are just at the beginning of this work, but now we have an encouraging proof of concept that these elements possess all the sequences necessary to work with mammalian machinery after an injury," said Poss.

According to the university, Poss suggests that genome-editing technologies may eventually make it possible to improve the ability of mammals — even humans — to repair and regrow damaged or missing body parts.

"We want to find more of these types of elements so we can understand what turns on and ultimately controls the program of regeneration," said Poss. "There may be strong elements that boost expression of the gene much higher than others, or elements that activate genes in a specific cell type that is injured. Having that level of specificity may one day enable us to change a poorly regenerative tissue to a better one with near-surgical precision."

The findings from the Duke study were published in the journal Nature.

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