regeneration in nature

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Evolution of regeneration in spiralians

One of the on-going debates in the regeneration field concerns how the regenerative capabilities shown by different animal groups have evolved. When considering the animal phylogeny we can see how most phyla contain species capable of regenerating. However, a huge variability exists in: 1) the regeneration power shown by closely related species and 2) the biological level of regeneration as depending on the model they can regenerate only specific cell types, or some tissues and/or organs, or structures and complex parts (for example, a limb) or, finally, the real champions capable of regenerating the whole body.

A recent paper by Alexandra Bely and colleagues discusses about the evolution of regeneration, especially within the spiralians ( As the authors raise, an important question is whether regeneration variation among bilaterians is the results of regeneration losses, independent gains or a combination of both. That is, was regeneration a feature that was already present in the last common ancestor of all bilaterians and has been lost in some taxonomic groups? or, alternatively, is something that has independently appeared in some groups and not others?

In order to address these questions it is absolutely necessary to gather as much information as possible about the regeneration capabilities of as many animal groups as possible and, more importantly, characterize the cellular and molecular processes that guide regeneration in those animals. Also, it is important to understand why very closely related species can differ significantly in their regenerative capabilities. In this review, the authors focussed on the Spiralia, a large and diverse protostome clade composed of 13 phyla including annelids, molluscs, nemerteans, platyhelminthes and rotifers. Importantly, there is an important variability of regeneration not only between different spiralian phyla but also within them.

Thus, annelids include species that can regenerate every part of the body, including some that can regenerate a whole animal from a single body segment, as well as species totally incapable of regenerating a single segment lost. In general, the capacity to regenerate posterior segments is very broadly distributed within the phylum. In contrast, the ability to regenerate anterior segments is much more variable and, in fact, the failure to regenerate anterior segments has been shown in over a third of the families from which data are available. Nemerteans can undergo growth and degrowth indicating processes of remodelling. Some animals can be maintained starved for over a year shrinking in size but otherwise apparently happy. Among them, regeneration of the proboscis (used for prey capture), tail and head occurs in some groups, and some species can regenerate the whole animal from a tiny body piece. Posterior regeneration is not in general very well documented because the lack of easily scorable structures. Anterior regeneration appears to be very limited within this group although some species of one particular family can regenerate a complete head. However, this seems to be an exception within this phylum, which could imply that it might be a regeneration gain of this particular family.

Among Platyhelminthes, the triclads (planarians) are the best known in terms of their regenerative capabilities. However, it is also true that a number of groups of this phylum have much more limited regenerative capacities. Also, within this phylum posterior regeneration appears to be more widespread than anterior regeneration. Finally, within molluscs we do not have any representative capable of regenerating the whole body. However, different species can regenerate specific structures such as the foot, anterior neural elements, tentacles and even the entire head in some gastropods.

Next, the authors review what is known about the cellular and molecular basis of regeneration within these different phyla. Thus, in annelids after amputation there is a rapid muscle contraction to seal the wound. During the very first stages of wound healing and regeneration, proliferation throughout most of the body seems to be shut down. At the same time there is a large cell migration response towards the wound. After wound healing, cells near the wound start proliferating forming a regenerative blastema. The origin of the regenerative cells within the blastema seems to come from the proliferation of the three tissue layers close to the wound. The role of annelid neoblasts (undifferentiated cells) in regeneration is still under debate. Also, several genes have been shown to be expressed within the blastema including markers of stem cells and germline as well as Hox genes. Interestingly, all these genes expressed within the blastema are also detected during normal growth in the posterior growth zone. This suggests a shared molecular mechanism between regeneration and growth. Finally, regeneration does not uniquely imply the formation of new tissues and structures but also a remodelling of the pre-existing tissues.

In nemerteans, amputation is followed by muscle contraction and wound healing followed by a phase of cell proliferation and the formation of a regenerative blastema, much more evident during anterior regeneration than in posterior regenerates. Unfortunately, the origin of the regenerative cells of the blastema is obscure, and although some old studies pointed to the role of some putative undifferentiated and totipotent cells scattered in the extracellular matrix, more recent studies does not seem to support the existence of such undifferentiated cells. Also, very little is known about the genetic program triggered during regeneration within the blastema cells, except some studies reporting the expression of pax6 and otx in the regenerating central nervous system. Within platyhelminthes, most of the cellular and molecular data of the regenerative process comes from planarians, macrostomids are providing also some interesting data. In planarians, wound healing is followed by the local proliferation of totipotent stem cells (known as neoblasts) closed to the wound that originate a regenerative blastema in which the new structures differentiate. Remodelling of the pre-existing tissues is also necessary to achieve normal body proportions of the regenerated animal. Recently, many papers have reported on different genes and signalling pathways that regulate proper regeneration in planarians. However, much more data should be provided from those taxonomic groups that have either poor regenerative capabilities or for which the cellular and molecular basis of their regenerative capacities are currently unknown. Finally, very little is known about the cellular and molecular processes involved in regeneration in molluscs. A recent report on octopus arm regeneration suggests that a mass of mesenchymal undifferentiated cells would accumulate below the wound forming a highly proliferative blastema.

From all these data and comparative analysis in these spiralian phyla the authors draw four main conclusions: 1) the ability to regenerate the whole body seems to be present in only a subset of representatives of each of these groups. From a phylogenetic perspective numerous increases and/or decreases in regeneration ability have occurred across these phyla. This raises that the possibility that regeneration may not be homologous across them needs to be considered; 2) posterior regeneration appears to be more widespread than anterior regeneration; 3) all phyla include a blastema stage, although the origin of the regenerative cells that form it may be different, and 4) in all these phyla the capacity for continuous growth and degrowth is well documented, suggesting a mechanistic relationship or common set of elements and features between these processes and regeneration.

In summary, how the capacity of regeneration has evolved is also a fascinating field of study that requires much more sampling and data collection for the required comparative analyses.


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Francesc Cebrià

Francesc Cebrià

Francesc Cebrià

I am a Biologist and Professor at the University of Barcelona. I do my research on a fascinating animal: freshwater planarians. You can cut them in as many pieces as you want and each piece will regenerate a complete new flatworm in very few days. In this blog I will keep you updated on the latest news on the field of animal regeneration. You will be able to follow the latest research on how planarians, axolotls, newts, cnidarians and other animals are able to regenerate parts of their bodies

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