Scientists are genetically modifying a bizarre looking Mexican salamander, which according to ancient mythology is a transformed Aztec god, in the hope its ability to regenerate body parts will one day help human amputees.
The Mexican Axolotl, also known as the water monster, is anything but monsterous looking. It can grow to 30 cm in length, although the average size is closer to half that. They have feathery external gills, which protrude from the back of a wide, flat head, small beeedy eyes, and a permanent cartoon figure-like smile.
Found exclusively in the lake and canals of Xochimilco ,near Mexico City, axolotls differ from most other salamanders in that they live permanently in water.
What has caught the attention of scientists are not the axolotl’s cute appearance, but it’s incredible capabilities to regenerate. Various other animals have the ability to regrow body parts, but the water monster can regrow injured limbs, jaws, skin, organs and parts of its brain and spinal chord time and time again.
The US Department of Defence has given a $6.25m research grant to scientists studying the little creature with the aim of eventually helping the more than 1 000 soldiers who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing extremities.
“Humans do repair tissue but they don’t repair it perfectly whereas the axolotl under certain injury conditions can go into kind of a mode where they repeat the process of the embryo,”
said Elly Tanaka from the Centre for Regenerative Therapies in Dresden, Germany.
Tanaka has succeeded in genetically engineering axolotls using a mutant type found in the wild with no skin pigment and inserting a green-glowing gene from a jellyfish into the salamander cells to help see the process of regeneration in action.
The skin is clear so you can see the fluorescent protein inside the live animal,” Tanaka said in a phone interview. The goal is to compare and contrast with the human healing process.
If researchers are correct, and can find a way to utilize such knowledge within humans, it would quite possibly be a modern day miracle. The benefits to uncountable amounts of people would be endless.