Some days a job is just a job. Other days you get to talk about 18th century French nobility guillotining garden snails just to watch them grow a new head, and you realize this may be a pretty sweet gig. On this week’s podcast, Robert and I discuss regeneration, prompted by the story of the tiny but immortal hydrozoa Turritopsis nutricula, which possesses the truly remarkable biological ability to go from old to young and back again — endlessly. This ability kicks in whenever T. nutricula is at risk of injury or starvation, although it won’t deter a hungry predator.*
On the cellular level, it’s called transdifferentiation, or the ability of a differentiated cell, like a skin cell or even an adult stem cell, to transform itself into a new type of cell, such as a liver cell. It’s the biological equivalent of an extreme makeover. As you might imagine, scientists have been trying to coax mammalian cells to do this for a long time because humans wouldn’t mind getting in on the limb or organ regeneration action, whether it be for a person who’s lost an arm or a leg or for someone in dire need of a new liver. (Speaking of lost limbs, check out this cool prosthetic arm showcased on Colbert. It’s pretty amazing, just in case our ability to grow new limbs like a salamander doesn’t pan out any time soon.)
But if any animals could benefit from the ability to defy death right now, it’s the bats. Bat populations in the northeastern United States are being decimated by a cold-hardy fungus called Geomyces destructans. For example, the New Jersey State Department of Environmental Protection reports that the state’s largest hibernaculum for bats saw only 1,700 of the mammals roosting there this past winter, as opposed to the 27,000 or so bats who normally call it their winter home. It’s alarming. And it’s the subject of our other podcast this week. If you want to dig a little more into the current bat epidemic, you can also read Zooillogix’s take on it.
So much good science, so little time, which is why you’ll also find us talking it up on Facebook and Twitter, too, nowadays. Head over there and let us know what’s on your mind. Or there’s always that handy comment box below.
*Speaking of hunger, I hope you’re hungry for some jellyfish. See why you might find yourself eating them if you’re around in 2050.