Research Insider this week gets up close with Jia Zheng Woo who is a Graduate of Masters in Molecular Biosciences from the University of Heidelberg, Germany. During his research semester, he studied how planarians regenerate missing tissues at the Whitehead Institute, U.S. Research Insider also identifies the areas of United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which the research covers and its impact.
What got you into your research field?
I have always been curious about how embryos grow and build different tissues (a field called developmental biology). Interestingly, although us humans may look very different from other animals like mice, fish and insects, we actually use very similar genes to build our bodies. For example, the gene that we use to build our own eyes is very similar to what any of these
animals use to build theirs. The process of building tissues and organs also do not only happen during the stages of the embryo, but during regeneration when an adult regrows missing body parts after injury.
What is the novelty of your research?
Unlike humans, there are animals that are able to regenerate even their whole body after injuries. However, we still do not understand how they achieve this. I use planarian flatworms to address this question because you can cut them into tiny pieces and each piece can regenerate a complete animal. It is important that planarians only regenerate what is missing. For example, after their heads are amputated, how do they know that they should regenerate a head and not something else?
My research focusses on understanding how they accomplish this by investigating how sometimes this process can go wrong.
Why is your research important?
Scientists have discovered that many genes that planarians use to regenerate are also found in humans. Additionally, to be able to regenerate throughout their lifetime, planarians use stem cells that can produce every single cell type of the animal. Humans actually have stem cells that can achieve this too but only temporarily when we were embryos. We use these stem cells to build our organs such as skin, heart and gut. Understanding what genes planarians and their stem cells use to achieve regeneration throughout their lifetime can teach us lessons about how regeneration may work in other species including humans.
What is the SDG impact of your research?
A way to replace damaged cells, tissues or organs is through transplantation. However, transplant rejection and the shortage of organs available for donation are major issues. Many regenerative medicine strategies, therefore, propose the use of stem cells to replace missing or dysfunctional cells. Currently, we only have limited knowledge of how human stem cells function. By understanding how planarian stem cells are able to regenerate any missing body parts, we hope that one day, we can harness this knowledge for the purpose of human tissue regeneration.
Watch episode #8 of Malaysian Research Insider, a webinar series organised by Malaysian Biosciences Scholars (MBIOS) and 100 Scientists of Malaysia in collaboration with Science Media Centre Malaysia with Jia Zheng
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