Scientists have manipulated cell communication in worms to developed flatworms that can grow various heads and brains of other species, according to a new research.
The new research proves that development can be controlled by things other than genetics, since the researchers did not alter the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of the flatworms, but rather manipulated the proteins that play a role in the conversation between cells.
Dr. Michael Levin, a biologist at Tufts University and director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology (TCRDB), said that the structure and sequence of chromatin – a complex of proteins and DNA that forms chromosomes – usually determine the shape of an organism. However, the new study suggests that manipulating the physiological networks can change the species’ anatomy too, Dr. Levin added.
Researchers say that the changes in the worms are temporary, and that their heads will go back to their original form after a few weeks. The new findings may someday lead to regenerative medicine by rebuilding damaged organs and tissue, and may also treat birth defects.
In the study – published November 24 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences – the researchers used a species of freshwater flatworm called Girardia dorotocephala, which is known to regenerate lost tissue. The Girardia dorotocephala flatworms have a large number of cells called neoblasts – pluripotent adult stem cells that are able to turn into any cell of the body.
The scientists first cut off the heads of the lab flatworms, and then they altered the regenerating heads by interrupting protein channels known as gap junctions. Electrical impulses are sent through these junctions by cells in order to communicate with one another.
Scientist managed to create Girardia dorotocephala worms that grew heads and brains similar to that of other flatworm species like the Schmidtea mediterranea (which have round heads), P. Felina (heads with pointy ears), and D. japonica (triangular heads).
The brains of the flatworms also seemed to modify to suit the new head shape, the researchers found. That being said, this is clear evidence that if the communications between cells are disrupted, the ‘building’ process will be disrupted as well.
According to Dr. Levin, the heads of the Girardia dorotocephala remained altered for a limited amount of time, because after a while the neoblasts reasserted the flatworms’ initial brains and head-shapes. However, Dr. Levin has previously engineered a species of flatworm to grow two heads, which never went back to its initial form.
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