In one of the most innovative research carried out in recent times, a group of scientists at the Tufts University has induced one flatworm species to develop heads and brain of flatworms belonging to another species. The scientists have done so without making any change in the creature’s genomic sequence. They just manipulated electrical synapses into the body of the worms.
The study, which has been published recently in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, showed that it is possible to have an impact on a creature’s large-scale anatomy using physiological circuits outside the genes (although at present this fact is proved only for flatworms).
Michael Levin, the study’s senior and corresponding author, talked about the kind of impact the findings of this new study will have on our perception of formation of different organisms. He informed that it is widely believed that the structure and sequence of chromatin (the raw material for chromosomes) determine the kind of shape a particular organism will possess, but added that the results of this new study are suggesting that it is possible that the function of physiological networks will end up overriding the default anatomy of the species in question.
The researchers decided to carry out the experiments on a flatworm type called Girardia dorotocephala. This particular flatworm species is known to possess advanced regenerative capabilities. For inducing the head change, researchers disrupted electrical signals traveling along the protein channels between the organism’s cells.
It was found that the other than changing the shape of the worm’s head, the process also altered the shape of its brain and the distribution of its stem cells. The researchers concluded that the closer the species was to G. dorotocephala on the evolutionary timeline, the easier was the process of conversion. This makes it clear that someday we might see these physiological circuits playing a notable role in evolution.
Here, it must be mentioned that the changes made to the flatworm’s head were temporary. After some weeks, the worms started getting back the original head shapes they had. Scientists are saying that they will need to carry out more experiments for understanding this process.
For those who are wondering why researchers are trying to grow heads of different worms: it’s because they believe it will help them to gather more information on the evolutionary process and comprehend regeneration and birth defects better.