Researchers are trying to solve the mystery of animal regeneration by studying flatworms. These little creatures are some of the best regenerators on the planet, and researchers have identified dozens of genes, some of which are related to human genes, that are involved in the process.

Salamanders and starfish are two examples of animals whose regenerative properties allow them to regrow lost limbs. But planarians, or flatworms, have extraordinary regenerative properties, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported, citing work by researcher Peter Reddien. He's been working with flatworms and discovered dozens of genes that enable the worms to regrow their head, tail or body. According to Reddien, the flatworm can regrow almost its entire body from one piece of tissue.

Solving the mystery of animal regeneration will go beyond answering a century-old question, as it could aid in the development of new regenerative medicine treatments. Reddien said in a statement, “That is the obsessive focus of my lab -- to try to understand how regeneration happens, with the conviction that the generation of fundamental knowledge about regeneration works will be important for understanding biology broadly and also for generating ideas for therapeutic applications.”

Reddien’s research has led to the discovery of several genes associated with regeneration that are related to genes found in humans. Some of these human genes help in the wound-healing process but have been little studied up to this point. By finding possibly related genes, researchers can determine if similar genes found in humans can be targeted to aid in regenerative medicine, possibly regenerating human cells and tissues. “The hope is that understanding these mechanisms could lead to new ideas about how applications could be derived to enhance wound healing and repair in humans,” Reddien said.

Starting his research at the University of Utah, Reddien used RNA interference to selectively turn off different genes to determine their role in flatworm regeneration. Continuing his research at MIT, Reddien discovered one such gene, called notum, that helps control whether or not the flatworm grows a head or tail.

Although research on animal regeneration is still in its infancy, Reddien has called the process an “adventure” and says he has high hopes that flatworms will provide the key to solving the mystery of animal regeneration. “We’re cutting off animals’ heads and figuring out how they regrow new ones at a molecular level," he said. "It’s up to us to develop the methods we need to solve these problems because it’s such a new field.”