Researchers at Tufts University can tweak the cells inside flatworms to prompt them into growing heads and brains of related species.
If I were to say “we gave this living thing a new brain”, you’d probably imagine a Frankenstein-level mad science operation that will be featured in an upcoming horror movie. But apparently the process is actually quite benign – if we’re talking about flatworms. Researchers from Tufts University have discovered a method of disrupting the regeneration process of flatworm cells, tricking the organism into growing the heads of related species. Brains and all.
How does one work this black magic? It starts by cutting off a Girardia dorotocephala flatworm’s head. (Don’t worry! In this case, it grows back.) Then you interrupt electrical pathways the flatworms cells use to communicate with each other. By doing so, the newly grown heads take on the traits of related species, up to and including brain morphology. The results can be viewed in the larger image below.
Perhaps the most impressive detail? This is all possible without changing any flatworm genomes. In fact, the entire process is temporary, as the worms returned to their regular forms after a few weeks.
So is there any practical information we can obtain from this study? Well, if human regeneration could be co-opted without changing genomes, it’s possible to “cure” some birth defects by redirecting our cellular growth. It could prove to be an incredibly beneficial development, as long as we don’t have to chop off our own heads to make it happen.