Humans have some regenerative abilities but compared to creatures like the salamander, which has an amazing ability to regenerate after injury, we’re pretty limited. Not only are salamanders the only adult vertebrates able to regrow full limbs, they’re able to regenerate an impressive repertoire of complex structures including parts of their hearts, eyes, spinal cord and tails.
In recent years, researchers have been studying salamander regeneration in the hope that the knowledge gathered would contribute to understanding how can they regenerate, and how to promote human regeneration.
Although we do not yet understand the exact mechanisms by which salamanders are able to regrow their limbs, we do know that this animal regeneration takes place by the reprogramming of adult cells. This means that for regeneration to take place, adult cells – such as muscle cells – that form the limb have to lose their muscle identity and proliferate to give rise to new cells that will contribute to form the new structure.
This process is rarely found in mammalian cells and this has been suggested as the basis for their poor regenerative abilities. But clearly, unravelling the mechanisms underlying this reprogramming is central to understanding why certain vertebrates can regenerate their limbs while others can’t, and how to repeat this process in humans. If we were able to crack this puzzle, it could lead to strategies to enhance the reprogramming of cells from patients, and to better understand their disease and design appropriate cures.