Nature gives back to the animal precisely and only that which it has lost, and she gives back to it all that it has lost (René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur 1712)
Although humans have been aware since ancient times of the capacity of some organs and animals to regenerate, as shown for instance in the classic myth of Prometheus and his liver regeneration, it was in 1712 that the French scientist René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683-1757) presented in the French Academy one of the first systematic studies on regeneration based on his observations on crayfish limb regeneration. The 18th century was a very exciting time for the regeneration field as it became a “hot” and popular discussion topic not only because the scientific interest on this fascinating process itself but also because it turned a central issue in the dicotomy between preformism and epigenesis. Probably the most influential researcher in the field during the 18th century was Abraham Trembley, considered as the founder of the modern study of regeneration after his works on Hydra. Following a rigourous quantitative approach he described how small pieces of those polips were able to regenerate a complete new animal. The third name to mention from those years was Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799) who carried out the first detailed studies on regeneration in vertebrates. He described, for instance, how newts and tadpoles were capable of regenerating their limbs and tails.
But, unfortunately, and despite the works by Thomas Hunt Morgan during the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th, the foundation of the modern Genetics and Embriology fields together with the development of classic models such as Drosophila, mouse and C. elegans somehow turned the mainstream scientific interests away from regeneration. It did not help either that for many years there was a relative lack of modern tools to be applied to address the problem of regeneration at the molecular level. However, things have changed rapidly in the last decades and classical models of regeneration such as Hydra, planarians, axolotls, newts, frogs, annelids and insects together with more recent incorporations such as zebrafish, are attracting the interest of an increasing number of laboratories. But this renewed interest on animal regeneration is not only because current techniques allow us to characterize the regenerative process at the molecular, genetic and cellular levels but also because the acquired knowledge on how regeneration takes place naturally in this variety of animals can provide very important insights into the field of regenerative medicine.
For a better and deeper knowledge on the history of regeneration research:
- A History of Regeneration Research. Milestones in the Evolution of a Science. Edited by Charles E. Dinsmore (1991), Cambridge University Press
- Regeneration. Thomas Hunt Morgan (1901). New York: Macmillan