When it comes to magical, mythical powers, it's tough to top the ability to grow back lost parts of the body, or regeneration. It's the calling card of scrappy comic book hero Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, whose body is able to heal from almost any injury and regrow limbs and organs.
Though it's not as fierce as a wolverine, perhaps Logan should've been ... The Axolotl. Because though quite mild-mannered, this amphibian is a real-life master regenerator.
And scientists have taken a big step towards understanding how this fantastic creature does it.
It can grow back... anything?
As you may know, other animals are capable of regeneration. Starfish can grow back arms. Certain lizards can "drop" their tail to escape predators and regrow it later. And some salamanders, cousins of the axolotl, can regrow limbs. So why is the axolotl (say AHKS-uhl-ah-tuhl) so special?
Becuase it doesn't just stop at limbs or its tail. It has been observed to grow back eyes, lung tissue, and parts of its spinal cord. And that's just the stuff that we've seen happen. Conceivably, it could fully recover from any injury that didn't kill it.
Add this to the other curious traits of this Mexican salamander — in particular the feathery gills that it uses to breathe underwater — and you have an animal that is unlike any other. So naturally, the question is this...
How does it do it?
Decoding the mystery
Any attempt to understand the axolotl begins with decoding its genome (this is the chain of chromosomes, which contain DNA and genes, that are the blueprint of a living thing). The good news? We can do this! The bad news?
It takes a super long time. Or in the case of the axolotl, a super DUPER long time.
That's because the axolotl's genome is ten times longer than the human genome (which is already very long). In a way, reading the genome like reading a very long book in another language. Every 'page' must be read carefully, double checked, and recorded before moving on.
But the efforts are starting to pay off. Led by biologist Grant Parker Flowers from Yale University, a team of researchers believe that two genes — catalase and fetuin-b — are vital to the axolotl's regeneration powers.
So time to buy some, uh, catalase and fetuin-b supplements?
Not so fast
Sadly it's not as simple as that. For one, the scientists are sure that other parts of the genome are involved in the axolotl's powers. And even then, there's no guarantee that it's something humans could ever adopt into their own biology. But ...
It's a very tempting possibility to think about. If scientists could learn how to regrow cells, it could lead to all kinds of medical breakthroughs, and not just regrowing limbs and other body parts. It could also be used to defend against infections and diseases that attack our cells.
Will there one day be a little axolotl in all of us? The idea is growing on us...