Jessica Whited enjoys spending time with her 6-year-old twin boys, reading them stories, and letting their imaginations roam. One thing Whited doesn’t need to feed their curiosity about, however, is salamanders—they hear about those from Mom almost every day. Whited already has about 1,000 rare axolotl salamanders in her lab at Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Cambridge, MA. But caring for the 9-inch amphibians, which originate from the lakes and canals underlying Mexico City, certainly isn’t child’s play. Axolotls are entirely aquatic–their name translates to “water monster”; they like to bite each other; and they take 9 months to reach adulthood.
Like many other species of salamander, the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) possesses a remarkable, almost magical, ability to grow back lost or damaged limbs. Whited’s interest in this power of limb regeneration earned her a 2015 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. Her goal is to discover how the limbs of these salamanders know exactly where they’ve been injured and start regrowing from precisely that point, while at the same time forging vital new nerve connections to the brain. Ultimately, she hopes her work will help develop strategies to explore the possibility of “awakening” this regenerative ability in humans with injured or severed limbs.
The limbs of an axolotl salamander have essentially the same shape as those of humans. Perhaps even more importantly, they include all the same cell types, including bone, muscle, cartilage, and various layers of skin. But when an axolotl loses a “hand” or “foot,” the differences soon become clear.