New Zealand scientists have begun investigating what humans might learn from a common sea creature capable of regenerating an entire new body.
The sea squirt is curious to researchers because of its amazing ability to regenerate complex anatomy - and even completely new bodies - from as little as a few hundred cells.
By contrast, a human body's ability to repair itself following injury remains limited - and new insights we could gain from the creature could potentially help our own wound-healing processes.
While little is known about how the sea squirt is able to regenerate, and why this capacity does not exist in us, a team of international scientists led by Otago University's Dr Megan Wilson seek to solve some of the mysteries.
Their work will focus on how the widespread marine species can regenerate an entire new adult version of itself in less than two weeks, from only a minute piece of tissue.
Wilson said the sea squirt was particularly relevant to humans as they were, on an evolutionary scale, our closest invertebrate relative, and may even share some common genes with us.
Otago researchers have already unravelled its DNA make-up by sequencing its genome, enabling its genes to be closely studied.
"What that means is we can now look at which genes are being turned on and off during the regeneration process," Wilson said.
But DNA was just part of the puzzle; the full picture couldn't be gained without revealing the cellular functions at play.
In labs, scientists will grow cells to observe how they self-organise into functional tissue, and how the process is regulated.
"We really have to look at the stem cells that can go and form different parts of the body and re-populate damaged organs.
"So we need methods to label those cells, so we can look at where they end up and where they go, and help us identify the source of the cells for regeneration."
The team will use cell-tracing methods including the fluorescent labelling, alongside specially developed tracking software.
Once they understand how the different molecular and cellular pathways control minor injury repair, they'll compare them with those involved in whole body regeneration.
"We expect to see some of the pathways that are important for this whole-body regeneration may also crop up as being important for repairing human tissue damage or organ formation," Wilson said.
But that didn't mean we might one day be able to regenerate entire new limbs or body parts, as sea squirts do.
"It might mean we can actually do a bit more to activate soft tissue regeneration pathways, rather than just scarring."
The three-year study is being supported with an $820,000 Marsden Fund grant.