Scientists have created a scary worm called Franken flatworm that can control the heads and brains of other species by manipulating the cell communication between it and the prey.
The research wants to demonstrate that control is not solely dependent on genetics alone. There was no alteration on the DNA of the flatworm, but they did manipulate the proteins that communicate and control the cells.
Lead researcher and biologist Michael Levin at Tufts University said that, “It is commonly thought that the sequence and structure of chromatin — the material that makes up chromosomes — determine the shape of an organism, but these results show that the function of physiological networks can override the species-specific default anatomy.”
They saw that the changes were only temporary for the worms that could lasts for a few weeks as they observed the heads to revert back to its normal shape and size.
Researchers are hopeful that this study opens the possibility of developing treatments for nirth defects and even formulating an effective regenerative medicine. This will help patients replace or rebuild their damaged cells, tissues and organs as well.
In their study, they used a small freshwater flatwork called Girardia dorotocephala. This particular species is known for having the ability to regenerate its lost tissues. The flat worm can retain a huge number of neoblast cells. These cells are totipotent stem cells which mean that they can resemble and be like any cell type in the body. These types of cells are only existent in the human body during the first days of embryonic development.
They initially cut off the heads of the specimens and then alter the flatworm’s regenarting head. The team confused the protein channels known as gap junctions where electrical pulses are sent in order for cells to communicate.
Result shows that they could easily alter the worms for its to develop head and brains much alike its closely related flatworm species.
The specimen has a pointy head with two elongated, ear-like projections called auricles close to its eyes. After the treatment, some of the specimens developed rounded heads like those of S. mediterranea, thick necks and pointy heads like P. felinai, triangular heads like D. japonica, and some simply developed their normal heads back.
The brains inside the newly developed heads seem to follow the altered head shape so their brain morphologies will resemble that of its resembling species.
The researchers reported that the mix-and-match effect was harder for species that are very far from each in the evolutionary family tree.
Levin said that, “These findings raise significant questions about how genes and bioelectric networks interact to build complex body structures.” They described cells as construction workers who are needed to make the plan into a structure much like genes as a blueprint for an organisms unique body make-up. The gap junctions act as walkie-talkies that help workers communicate with each other. And disrupting this communication process will also disrupt the whole building process possibly creating a different outcome from the original plan.
The specimens retained its altered heads and brains for a very limited time because its neoblasts eventually took over and reasserted the cells to form its normal head and brain shapes.
But Levin and his team previously engineered a different flatworm species that grew two heads and permanently stayed that way.
The study was published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.