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Scientists induce flatworms to grow head, brains of other species

Researchers hope their findings will improve birth defect treatments and tissue regeneration technology.

By
Brooks Hays
Researchers manipulated the electrical synapses of flatworms to induce the worms to grow the heads and brains of other species. Photo by Tufts University
Researchers manipulated the electrical synapses of flatworms to induce the worms to grow the heads and brains of other species. Photo by Tufts University

BOSTON, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- Without manipulating their DNA, researchers at Tufts University have induced flatworms to grow heads and brains of another species of flatworm.

By manipulating the worms' electrical synapses, biologists coaxed the specimens into growing different types of heads and brains. The research is proof of a new types of physiological governing systems, separate from the genome.

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"It is commonly thought that the sequence and structure of chromatin -- material that makes up chromosomes -- determine the shape of an organism, but these results show that the function of physiological networks can override the species-specific default anatomy," researcher Michael Levin, director of Tufts' Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology, said in a press release. "By modulating the connectivity of cells via electrical synapses, we were able to derive head morphology and brain patterning belonging to a completely different species from an animal with a normal genome."

Scientists attempted to induce the regeneration of a variety of head types, and found the easiest were the heads and brains of those to whom the flatworm was most closely related to on the evolutionary timeline.

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By better understanding the interactions between genes and bioelectrical circuitry, researchers hope they can improve birth defect treatments and tissue regeneration technology.

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The new research was detailed in a new paper, published this week in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

"We've demonstrated that the electrical connections between cells provide important information for species-specific patterning of the head during regeneration in planarian flatworms," said first author Maya Emmons-Bell, an undergraduate at Tufts. "This kind of information will be crucial for advances in regenerative medicine, as well as a better understanding of evolutionary biology."

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But unlike experiments which have used gene manipulation to coax different shaped bodies and features from flatworms, the morphological changes weren't permanent. The flatworms reverted to their original anatomy after a few weeks. Researchers plan to do further testing to figure out how this works.

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