Scientists have, for the first time, identified genetic switches that are linked to regeneration of tails in lizards, a finding that may be key to regrowing muscles, cartilage and spinal columns in humans.
Lizards are known to be able to drop their tails off to avoid capture, but how they regrow a new tail has remained a mystery.
Researchers at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and Arizona State University (ASU) in the US identified three tiny RNA switches, known as microRNAs – which turn genes on and off – that are associated with the regeneration of tails in the green anole lizard, Anolis carolinensis.
Using next-generation genomic and computer analysis, scientists hope their findings will help lead to discoveries of new therapeutic approaches to switch on regeneration genes in humans.
“Since microRNAs are able to control a large number of genes at the same time, like an orchestra conductor leading the musicians, we hypothesised that they had to play a role in regeneration,” said Kenro Kusumi, a professor at ASU.
“Our earlier work found that hundreds of genes are involved in regeneration, and we are very excited to study these three new microRNAs,” Kusumi said.
Elizabeth Hutchins, a postdoctoral fellow at TGen hopes the findings will eventually enable such things as regenerating cartilage in knees, repairing spinal cords in accident victims, and reproducing the muscles of injured war veterans.
“This work highlights the importance of tiny RNA molecules in the tissue regeneration process, and showed for the first time an asymmetric microRNA distribution in different portions of the regenerating lizard tails,” said Marco Mangone, assistant professor at ASU.
“It seems like microRNAs may play an active role in this process, and are potentially able to shape the regenerating lizard tail like playdough,” Mangone said.
The study was published in the journal BMC Genomics.