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Clues to Organ Regeneration

Collaborative research at the University of Kentucky and the University of California-Irvine involving the genetic structure of salamanders might offer clues about regeneration of living tissue.

Photo of salamander"Clearly, there is a lot of interest in the regeneration of tissues, and tissue repair in organisms is within reach," says Stephen Randal Voss, an assistant professor in the UK Department of Biology. "However, we are a long way from understanding how to coax the human body into regenerating complex body parts after injury or disease."

Voss and David Gardiner, a research professor of biology at UC-Irvine, are engaged in an extensive research project funded by the National Institutes of Health to characterize genes that are expressed during limb regeneration in a Mexican salamander called the Axolotl (named for an Aztec god). Salamanders can regenerate complex body parts—a tail or a leg, for example—but scientists know relatively little about this amazing process.

Though an interesting animal to study, Axolotls fell out of favor when scientists turned to organisms with fast generation times. With the recent advent of high-tech gene characterization tools, however, many traditional research models like the Axolotl are being reexamined, with the hope that novel insights will be gained about human health and disease.

As has been discovered recently in other vertebrates such as fish, chicken, mice, and humans, there are probably around 30,000 genes in a salamander. From this pool, Voss and Gardner plan to identify important regeneration genes from the Axolotl using DNA microchip analysis, a method that can examine the behavior of thousands of genes at the same time. [see also, "Microarrays: Chipping Away at the Mysteries of Alzheimer's Disease."]

In preparation for the study, some 60,000 salamander gene fragments have been sequenced, with most of the work performed at a robotic workstation in Voss's lab.

"Once the key genes involved in regeneration have been identified, they can be sequenced in full and compared with those in other animals, including humans," says Voss. "We are very excited about the next few years. I have a great group of people in my lab, and our department has some of the finest equipment in the country for pursuing questions of this nature."

In 2001, Voss was awarded a $500,000 NSF CAREER Research grant and a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. This past December he received a $300,000 grant from the Kentucky Spinal Cord Head Injury Research Trust for research on spinal cord regeneration.

—Ralph Derickson, UK Public Relations

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