Whole-body regeneration is the ability of some animals to reconstruct entire body parts after major damage such as cutting into two fragments. This may seem incredible to us but several very different animals are able to perform this feat quite easily, a phenomenon that has attracted the interest of naturalists and scientists for ages. In our lab we are studying the whole-body regeneration process of a simple animal called the sea anemone Nematostella. This animal belongs to cnidarians (e.g: medusas, corals) and has a remarkable ability to regenerate even after cutting it into several parts. Surprisingly the genome sequence of Nematostella revealed a large extent of genes and even genome segments that are very similar to those of man, especially genes that function in embryonic development.
To better understand this mystery we have explored the genetic program, in which after bisection in the middle, the "tail" half reconstructs the head and the "head" part rebuilds the tail. In this project we have charted the genes that are induced at different time points along the regeneration process and compared their action in the head versus the tail forming parts. This screen identified many genes that are involved in the formation of the basic body axis in the embryonic development stage and also discovered new genes that may be specific to the regeneration program.
In this research we have also characterized the main genetic networks that are involved in regeneration and we now know more about which gene tools are responsible for the head and tail reconstruction jobs as well as their logic of operation. A large proportion of these genes are common to us, and thus this information can lead in the future to better wound healing treatments in people and may even allow some organ repair after major injuries.