Skepticism

My (re)Generation

The human body is creepy.

You doubt me? Consider this — right this instant, someone somewhere is growing a brand new life form inside her. It has tiny little fingers, and tiny little toes, and feeds off its host like a parasite. It affects the host’s brain to stimulate feelings of protectiveness in order to facilitate its own survival. Eventually it will escape the host’s body and despite being completely helpless, it survives thanks to the changes it caused in the host’s brain, which compel her to clean it, feed it, and change its poopy diaper. Creepy!

And so cool.

Devious Parasite!I’m thinking about this right now because I’m about to be an aunt for the third time. I already have two little nephews who are the cutest, smartest children on the planet. No, it’s totally true. I know a lot of people say things like that, but in this case it’s undeniable. What makes it even greater is that I sincerely believe that one is good and one is evil (in the best possible way). They’re awesome.

Now I’m getting a niece, and I can’t wait to see how she turns out. It’s amazing that right now, even before she’s born, she’s compiling a little genetic instruction sheet that will tell her body some of the ways she’s going to grow up. It’ll decide her hair color, eye color, how tall she may grow — all the stuff that we’re just going to have to wait to find out.

The whole thing is pretty mysterious to me, since I sadly lack an in-depth knowledge of genetics (grants to send me back to college are now being accepted). That’s why I was fascinated by this article in today’s New York Times, which briefly outlines recent studies in human regeneration.

The stem cell brouhaha is usually front and center in regards to this area of research, and it is the area that’s getting the most funding. However, a small number of scientists are studying how animals regrow body parts, like lizards that can replace tails, limbs, jaws, intestines, and bits of the eyes. Mammals can do it, too. Deer can regrow antlers, and you can regrow your liver. That’s right! Humans are pretty good at quickly repairing a severely cut up liver, and seeing as I survived the past two boozalicious weekends, I guess I’m living proof of that.

In many cases of regeneration, cells that collect around an injured organ revert to an immature state. The clump of immature cells is called a “blastema.” The blastema takes a look at that old instruction sheet in the body to figure out how to recreate what’s missing.

Creepy!Here’s the really weird part — researchers discovered that if they slice off the blastema from one part of the body and put it elsewhere, the organ that was originally going to be regrown still grows. Presumably, I guess that means that if you slice off a salamander’s tail, then take the blastema and put it on the lizard’s forehead, it’ll grow a tail out its forehead. This means that while stem cell researchers are trying to get cells to take cues from neighboring cells in order to regenerate, these cells have built-in programming and are unaffected by their neighbors. If they can activate this ability in humans (and it appears that humans have the necessary genes, they just aren’t working right now), it may be cheaper and more efficient than stem cells.

Of course, you all know what this means: the people of the future will all have tails growing out their foreheads. I told you — creepy!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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