Thursday, April 12, 2018

Axolotl Genome Sequenced: Unlocking Regeneration

Mexican axolotl salamanders are amphibians that spend their whole lives underwater. Credit: Jamie Catto
The axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is an endangered salamander that can be found in the waters of Mexico. These salamanders spend their entire lives under water, so they are already different from the salamanders we are used to here in New Jersey. But there are other qualities to this fantastic creature that are pretty unexpected. The axolotl can regrow any severed limb with fully functioning bone, muscle, and nerves. But that's not all - they can even repair a broken spinal cord to the point where it functions like it was never damaged. The genome of these natural wonders was unsequenced and a mystery, until January 2018 when The axolotl genome and the evolution of key tissue formation regulators was published in Nature

The study was finally able to sequence the genome of the axolotl, revealing that it has a sequence of 32 billion base pairs - that's a bit more than 10x the amount of base pairs in the human genome. The scientists working on this project even had to develop a new gene assembler called MARVEL for the project! The findings from this genome indicated that some genes that are responsible for limb regeneration may be restricted by species, and that intron size may play a key role in the genes used during development. Further, the study found that the axolotl "does not contain the essential developmental gene Pax3" (Nowoshilo et. al. 2018), but they do have a paralogue, Pax7, which could lead to further understandings of the developmental genes of the axolotl. The ultimate goal for understanding the axolotl genome is to understand how their genes are able to make changes in RNA and proteins in order to transform adult cells to stem cells that facilitate regeneration. 

I think that the potential in understanding the axolotl genome is incredible. The ability for the axolotl to regenerate it's limbs and spinal cord functions after damage is incredible on it's own, and the potential for understanding stem cell production could be a huge step for human medical research. I'm looking forward to seeing how further research into the axolotl genome pans out, and how we are able to relate their wealth of genetic information to the human genome and development. 

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