A team of researchers from the State University of New York at Oswego, Brown University, and paleontologists from the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, are investigating the remarkable ability of the salamander to regrow its limbs and organs – with a view that such knowledge could be applied to human medicine.
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The researchers are of the opinion that the ability to regrow lost limbs could have been possible for all four-legged creatures, but that the regenerative capabilities must have been lost during evolution. But with salamanders, they still possess the powers to regenerate lost limbs, tails, and internal organs.
The scientists are also concerned about the way salamanders develop their legs during embryogenesis, something that is different in other tetrapods or four-legged vertebrates.
"Salamanders on the contrary form their fingers in a reversed order compared to all other four-legged vertebrates, a phenomenon that has puzzled scientist for over a century" said Dr. Nadia Fröbisch, first author of the study. "The question that we wanted to address was, if and how this different way of developing limbs is evolutionarily linked with the high regenerative capacities".
But that is not all; the way the tail of the “fire animal” regenerates is another puzzle that scientists think they must resolve.
"As opposed to lizards, which usually can only regenerate their tails once or twice and merely replace the vertebral column in the tail with a cartilaginous rod, salamanders regenerate a genuine tail including vertebral elements, the neural spine, and associated musculature" said Dr. Constanze Bickelmann, co-author on the study.
Further studies done about various amphibian groups that lived about 300 million years ago – the Carboniferous and Permian periods, revealed from fossils that extinct reptiles were able to regenerate legs and tails.
Using the fossils collections from various natural museums as well as the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, the researchers established that amphibians fossilized under great conditions that made preservation possible at different developmental stages, with Florian Witzmann of Brown University, co-author on the study, adding that the fossil record allowed for the detailed study of limb development and regeneration in extinct animals.
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Nadia Fröbisch went on to add that the capability of salamanders to regenerate limbs is not peculiar to the reptile alone, and possibly a widespread feature of four-legged vertebrates in past primitive conditions. "The high regenerative capacities were lost in the evolutionary history of the different tetrapod lineages, at least once, but likely multiple times independently, among them also the lineage leading to mammals," she said.