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Ambystoma mexicanum

Regenerating salamander

Axolotl: gene activation at certain points in development may be key to limb regeneration

Debbie R. / FLICKR Axolotl: gene activation at certain points in development may be key to limb regenerationDebbie R. / FLICKR

A rare biological trait has sparked scientists’ interest in the salamander of the species Ambystoma mexicanum, an endangered amphibian that lives in canals and lakes south of Mexico City. Commonly known as the axolotl, the creature can completely regenerate parts of its body, like its tail, spine, and eyes, potentially making it a model animal for regenerative biology. A study by researchers at the Morgridge Institute for Research in the United States analyzed how salamander embryos use DNA during 17 development stages and found an unusual pattern of gene expression (Developmental Biology, July 27, 2016), where phases characterized by bursts of gene activation alternate with phases of relative stability in the profile of expressed genes. The researchers identified peaks of gene expression during three stages: when the genome is first activated, when the intestine is formed, and when the nervous system is formed. The scientists hypothesize that when the Mexican amphibian regenerates parts of its body, it displays a pattern of gene expression similar to these three embryonic phases. “We have reason to believe that what’s taking place in the adult limb regeneration process looks a lot like early axolotl development,” says researcher Jeffrey Nelson, lead author.