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History of regeneration research

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


  1. Baldscientist says:

    I am sure that you guys know about this, but there is a narrative that explore some of the aspects of the decline of planarians as models:

    Mitmann Gregg and A Fausto-Sterling (1992) .”Whatever Happened to Planaria? CM Child and the Physiology of Inheritance.” in: Clarke A and J Fujimura eds., The Right Tool for the Job: At Work in 20th Century Life Sciences. (Princeton University Press).

    Very interesting, but I have to read more about it using other sources to pass judgement on it.

    By the way, Dr. Baguñà, I completely agree with you on the “omics” comment. In fact, I wrote a post not so long ago that talks about that:

    Best regards!


  2. chema84 says:

    Can we understand the history of a discipline without understanding its past? what it was somehow defines how it is now… and the truth is that some (if not many) of their observations and experiments are still valid, although were explained under a completely different scientific paradigm. Does this take credit out of them? I don’t think so. Instead, our current paradigm should make an effort to consider them and try to verify and successfully explain them. At the end, if we are seeing further it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants, and we have to remember our past to avoid repeating it. And I think this applies to any aspect of life, not only regeneration or science… or perhaps it is just that I like revising old concepts and questions and trying to explain them with modern ideas and methodologies…

    in any case, my feeling is that the planarian regeneration field is slowly moving towards a more cellular approach, although this takes time and requires the development of new sets of tools and techniques that are not always so readily available. And the future years will bring more integrative approaches, that’s for sure.


    • Jaume Baguñà says:

      The sentence “if we are seeing further it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants” is a too much quoted one and, very honestly, does not apply quite rightly here. What I meant is that whereas Morgan did a lot of nice work, as of today it is outdated. After Morgan left the field (around 1910; that is more than 100 years ago!!), scores of experiments were done by a lot of people that added much to and went further than Morgan. Why are they not quoted? Although I’m not particularly fond of it, why almost nobody today refers to Bronsted 1969 book ‘Planarian Regeneration’, the only one devoted to these worms? Besides, do you believe that people quoting Morgan’s works have actually read it? I bet you 99 per cent haven’t. So, what’s this fuss about? Here, I believe there is some chauvinism from the new brand of american planariologists just to quote a US scientist. After all, there were not many of them…..working in planarian regeneration.

      Morgan left the field of planarian regeneration for Drosophila genetics because he felt that even if he lived 100 years he will not understand what these worms do. In that, he was a prophet. As a side-effect he got a Nobel Prize (1933). Born in 1866, by 1966 he would have found himself in the dark as regards his main concern: axial polarity. We are much better today. So, my suggestion is to leave Morgan aside and to start quoting other people (Bronsted, Dubois, Lender, and several french and japanese researchers that did a splendid job using grafting and other techniques). Before that, however, you have to read them. By the way, do you know that Morgan believed that genes played only a minor role in embryonic development? In that, he was not a prophet.

      So, I still have a dream.


  3. Jaume Baguñà says:

    I have a dream. This is that from now on people stop speaking and citing Morgan and Child. These guys did a superb work, but as of today they are clearly outdated as they are their concepts of epimorphosis, morphallaxis, morphogenetic fields, and so on that, to educated people, sound rather metaphysical. And while molecular work in planarians has from the 2000 produced the first Golden Age of planarian regeneration I believe it is now time to leave for a while genes and molecules (namely all the words ending in -omics) and think more on cells, cells and cells. That is, to clear up the mess of neoblasts, its unsolved lineages to the different cell types, to find where the toti/pluripotent class is located, and paramount to it all, how they react to the combined effects of pattern (AP, DV,…) and feeding signals.



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