Hydras seem to have found the fountain of youth, perpetually renewing their cells and regrowing damaged body parts. The tiny tubelike creatures, with a tentacle-ringed mouth and a sticky foot, can regrow their entire bodies from just a scrap of tissue.
These freshwater invertebrates’ regenerative superpowers hinge on three groups of stem cells that develop into specific cells of the hydra’s nerves, glands and other tissues. Scientists now have the best map yet of which genes turn on as stem cells journey toward their fates, researchers report July 26 in Science.
“Most animals have about the same genes,” says Celina Juliano, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Davis. But hydras somehow use that shared genetic toolkit “to do these crazy things,” she says.
Juliano and colleagues analyzed nearly 25,000 individual cells from adult hydra polyps to find which genes were active inside each cell. “Every 20 days, it’s basically a completely new animal,” Juliano says. This constant turnover let researchers track gene activity and catch the steps that stem cells go through as they develop.
The researchers could also watch how specific genes’ activity plays out across an animal’s body, by creating fluorescent probes that find and latch onto RNA in cells. For instance, nerve cells that cluster at the foot and near the tentacles lit up magenta in one hydra. For the hydra’s nervous system, researchers were also able to use the technique to map the development of 12 different types of nerve cells.
Scientists working toward regenerating tissue in humans may have something to learn from these creatures. “If you work with these regenerative organisms, like hydra, you can come up with fundamental principles of how regeneration works,” Juliano says.