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Harvard Researchers Discover Clues About Cell Regeneration By Transforming Worm Genomes

Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology is located at 26 Oxford Street, which also houses the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology is located at 26 Oxford Street, which also houses the Harvard Museum of Natural History. By Sidni M. Frederick
By Sara Dahiya and Monique I. Vobecky, Contributing Writers

Researchers in Harvard’s Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department discovered that after they manipulated the cells of worms, the worms passed on those genomic changes to their offspring, a finding that may offer other insights into cellular regeneration.

Professor Mansi Srivastava, who has been analyzing three-banded panther worms for over a decade, led the study — published in Developmental Cell last month — alongside postdoctoral researcher Lorenzo Ricci.

The researchers performed the process of transgenesis, in which scientists insert foreign material into the genome of an organism to observe how its cells respond, on the three-banded panther worms, a species of acoel worm.

The acoel worm is particularly representative of a “major yet understudied animal lineage” and its genome was recently sequenced, according to the study.

“Development of more genetic tools in acoels has the potential to advance the study of an important yet understudied animal group as well as to inform the evolution of pathways for development, regeneration, and stem cell biology,” the study reads.

Srivastava developed a transgenesis process that creates a glow-in-the-dark gene, giving the worms a fluorescent glow, according to the study. She created a process of microinjection of DNA into gut or skin cells, which progresses to create red or green colored proteins.

The worms kept in the lab surprisingly started reproducing, allowing the researchers to delve deeper into how genomic manipulation can transfer through generations, according to Srivastava. The worms also created embryos, which allowed for the creation of transgenic lines, an especially powerful tool in studying any biological phenomenon, she explained.

“What we did was one thing that’s one step further [than previous research],” Srivastava said. “We made a stable transgenic line — not only is the thing that we injected the information into glowing, its babies are also going to be glowing.”

“[This] means that the manipulation of the genome was not just incorporated into all of the adult cells — it also gets incorporated into the germline, the cells that will make the next generation the egg and the sperm,” she added.

Understanding regeneration in the transgenic worms could provide important insights into the regenerative process for humans, according to Srivastava. Further study on species that are more closely related to humans could help advance regenerative medicine, she added.

“We’re over time going to gather enough information to have a good understanding of what has changed along the line of human evolution that prevents regeneration from happening, and thereby use that information to solve those problems as well,” Srivastava said.

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