Falling Apart? This Animal May Help You Regenerate Organs and Lost Body Parts

We want to understand how it works, so we can apply it within our own bodies.
Brad Bergan

Researchers recently discovered a new capability of an abundant species in the Gulf of Eilat: a marine creature capable of regenerating all of its organs even if it's split into three different segments, according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology.

Crucially, if this biological capability is extracted, perfected, and adapted to suit human biology — global life expectancies might surge like never before.

The extreme regeneration capability of ascidians

"It is an astounding discovery, as this animal that belongs to the phylum Chordata — animals with a dorsal cord — which also includes us humans," said Professor Noa Shenkar of Tel Aviv University in a Phys.org report. "The ability to regenerate organs is common in the animal kingdom, and even among chordates you can find animals that regenerate organs, like the gecko who is able to grow a new tail. But not entire body systems."

"Here we found a chordate that can regenerate all of its organs even if it is separated into three pieces, with each piece knowing exactly how to regain functioning of all its missing body systems within a short period of time."

Hundreds of different ascidians species exist, subsisting in the world's seas and oceans — and they're so abundant that anyone who's peaked at the seafloor beneath the waves of shallow waters has likely seen them before — since the creatures camouflage themselves as rock lumps, blending in with their natural environment. But the specific type of ascidian investigated in the study is the Polycarpa mytiligera, which is highly common in the Eilat-region's coral reefs.

Sea creature regenerative abilities could extend human life

"By all accounts, the ascidian is a simple organism, with two openings in its body: an entry and an exit," said Tal Gordon, who used the new research in his doctoral dissertation, in the Phys.org report. "Inside the body there is a central organ that resembles a pasta strainer. The ascidian sucks up water through the body's entry point, the strainer filters the food particles that remain in the body, and the clean water exits through the exit point. Among invertebrates, they are considered to be the closest to humans from an evolutionary point of view." Ascidians' regenerative capacities are well-known, but these abilities were believed to apply only in cases of asexual reproduction — which makes this the first time regenerative abilities of such sweeping scope were identified in a chordate animal that only reproduces via sexual reproduction.

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"There are species of ascidians that perform simple regeneration in order to reproduce. These are species with a colonial lifestyle, with many identical individuals connected to one another," said Gordon. "They replicate themselves in order to grow. In contrast, the ascidian from Eilat, Polycarpa mytiligera, is an organism with a solitary lifestyle, without the capacity for asexual reproduction, similar to humans. In previous studies we showed that this species is able to regenerate its digestive system and its points of entrance and exit within a few days."

When Gordon's team looked to see if the creature could regenerate the entirety of its bodily systems, they gathered several ascidians from Eilat "and dissected them into two parts," explained Gordon. The team then dissected "several dozen ascidians into three fragments, leaving a part of the body without a nerve center, heart, and part of the digestive system." And, much to the research team's surprise, each part not only survived once separated from the others, but all organs were regenerated in each of the sections. You read that right — instead of three partially dissected pieces of one creature, the scientists now had three whole ones. Like the magic brooms in Disney's Fantasia — only it was science.

"Never before has such regenerative capacity been discovered among a solitary species that reproduces sexually, anywhere in the world," said Gordon, astonished. "Since the dawn of humanity, humans have been fascinated by the ability to regenerate damaged or missing organs," said Professor Shenkar. "Regeneration is a wonderful ability that we have, to a very limited extent, and we would like to understand how it works in order to try and apply it within our own bodies. Anyone snorkeling in the Gulf of Eilat can find this intriguing ascidian, who may be able to help us comprehend processes of tissue renewal that can help the human race."

The operative subtext to this story is hard to miss: if humans could simply regenerate faulty organs or severed limbs automatically, any number of life-threatening or -affecting illnesses could be worked around without need of treatments that many throughout the world simply can't afford. Obviously, human biology is very different than an ascidian's, but the potential benefits to society are far too high to ignore. Whether this leads to a breakthrough for organ transplants or not: One thing's for sure: health insurance and pharmaceutical companies probably won't like it.

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