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JayMac on science: Will we be able to regrow an arm one day — but should we?

The axolotl, which is also known as the Mexican Walking Fish, can regrow limbs and even its head. Photo: Getty Images

DISCLAIMER: The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of KSL Newsradio or its ownership.

Luke Gangi-Wellman of Salt Lake City’s Leonardo museum joined JayMac for Science Monday to talk about using nature-inspired invention to solve human problems or biomimicry.

Humans are, of course, always trying to make their lives easier. They can be very creative, but nature is way ahead of us, having been devoted to working on research and development for millions and millions of years. We just need to figure out how to use nature’s R&D. And then patent it!

That’s where biomimicry or biomimetics comes in. Biomimetics is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. Imitations from nature most often applies bioengineering, biology and medical sciences.

Leonardo da Vinci found inspiration in nature. His 15th-century sketches of spinning seedlings falling from a tree to earth resemble a helicopter. One of his designs featured large wings (bird or bat) connected to a wooden frame in which the pilot would lie facedown and beat the wings by turning a crank.

You might think engineers and scientists have used up all the biomimicry out there. Not even close.

An incredible creature

Take the axolotl, a species of aquatic salamander. It is capable of regenerating entire lost limbs in a period of months and does not heal by scarring, It possesses the “superpower” of regenerating its spinal cord, heart, and other organs. Axolotls can even receive transplanted organs from other individuals without rejection. Last year, the entire genome of the axolotl was sequenced. The axolotl has the largest genome ever fully sequenced, with 32 billion base pairs compared with about 3 billion base pairs in human DNA.

Many invertebrates (no spine), such as flatworms and hydra, can regrow their entire bodies from only a little piece of their original selves. The axolotl is not the only vertebrate (spine) with regeneration powers. Young frogs are known to regrow limbs, though they lose this ability when they change from tadpoles to adult frogs. Other vertebrates that regenerate:

  • Lizards who lose all or part of their tails can grow new ones.
  • Sharks continually replace lost teeth.
  • Spiders can regrow missing legs or parts of legs.
  • From a single lost arm, a starfish can completely regrow itself.
  • Humans are limited to skin and liver cells.

Scientists are trying to find where in the axolotl’s genome its superpowers of regeneration lie. But it’s almost as we’ve moved a step beyond biomimicry to bio-stealing. To hacking this animal’s incredible ability and seeking to replicate it completely in ourselves.

If or when we do, how do we use this technology? Who is given access to it? What is off-limits? If you had a defective arm but were given the ability to regrow a “super-arm,” should you be able to compete in the Olympics?

Anything seems possible, but should it be?



Jay Mcfarland hosts the JayMac News Show, weekdays from 12:30 to 3 p.m. on KSL Newsradio, as well as the fictional podcast, Hosts of Eden. KSL Newsradio is part of Bonneville Media and based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Don’t forget to review and subscribe to the JayMac News Show podcast on Apple Podcasts. Or follow Jay on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.