It is no secret that across the multitude of species of worms in the world, there are some that possess incredible abilities. These abilities have always been thought to be exclusive to these invertebrates and beyond the capabilities of a human being, until now.
Flatworms are a worm that we have covered many times, and we have gushed over their awesome powers in past articles we have written on them. Flatworms are an interesting species of worm, to say the least. These invertebrates are known for the shape of their bodies, which, instead of being round, looks as if it has been pressed flat. Flatworms can be terrestrial or aquatic, and there are thousands upon thousands of species of flatworms. The most prevalent of their abilities, which is associated with the planarian flatworm, is the power to regenerate body parts.
The regenerative powers of the planarian flatworm are something straight out of science fiction, despite them being known for a long time. Not only will a flatworm regrow its tail if one were to cut it off, but it would also regrow its head if cut off. Even stranger, the severed tail would likewise regrow a head, creating two flatworms out of one. Like some morbid magic trick, planarians can regenerate any body part and create a new flatoworm without need for fertilization of an egg. One could even cut a flatworm into four pieces, and it would grow into four flatworms, the middle parts growing new heads and tails!
Taking all of this into account, recent discoveries show that this amazing ability can be traced back to a single cell, namely the ‘adult pluripotent stem cell’. A pluripotent cell is a cell which initially has no defined function. In simpler words, it is a cell which is not specifically a brain cell or a tissue cell. Instead, it is able to become any cell in the body, and is versatile in that sense. A pluripotent stem cell is such a cell, but is further able to restore and divide itself into multiple cells with various functions. It is all far more scientific and complicated than that, but the bottom line is that it is these cells which give planarian flatworms the awesome regenerative powers that they have. In actual fact, humans possess such cells as well. However, while the lifespan of pluripotent stem cells in humans is confined to the early development of an embryo, planarians possess these cells throughout their entire lives. The study of stem cells has been paramount in research on regenerative medicine, and the fact that we have now discovered this same cell in planarians could be huge!
Planarian flatworms are not alone in this though. Powers of regeneration are not all that uncommon, it being seen in slugs and lizards alike, but they are not nearly as advanced as those of the planarian flatoworm. That being said, regenerative abilities used to be far more common in animals than they are today, and these findings indicate that it might be possible to return these gifts to the animals who have lost them. It also suggests that perhaps humans have some unlocked potential of regeneration that we have not tapped into, especially given that we share these same cells with planarians. Of course, most, if not all, organisms have stem cells of some sort, as it is these cells which have allowed organisms to evolve into the beings they are now.
To conclude, research into the regenerative powers of the planarian flatworms has indeed proven fruitful, to say the least. This discovery could mean a lot of things, and we should be excited for what is surely to come in the field of regenerative medicine. Imagine if, one day, veterans could regrow lost limbs, or burn victims could heal their scars with regenerated cells; it would be nothing short of extraordinary.