How planarians maintain their stem cell pools over generations

6 hours ago Fig. 1: Pluripotent stem cells enable planarians to achieve extraordinary feats of regeneration. (A) Planarians are able to re-grow an entire head in a matter of a few days. (B) The stem cells and their early offspring can be found almost all over the worms body. During regeneration, when a lot of new tissue has to be produced, they are able to generate a wide variety of cell types. The cell nuclei are marked in blue. Tissue-specific markers are marked in red, green and white. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine /Bartscherer

Planarians are known as masters of regeneration: they can re-build any part of their bodies after amputation. This ability relies on a large number of pluripotent stem cells. To further investigate the mechanisms that enable planarians to maintain their stem cell pool over generations, scientists have now established a method for analysing the composition of planarian stem cells and the turnover of their proteins. They discovered a protein that is not only required for the maintenance of the stem cell pool in planarians, but might also be active in the pluripotent stem cells of mammals.

Of earthworms and flatworms

Everyone knows the myth about earthworms: if you cut them in half, you get two worms. Nothing could be further from the truth, alas. However, if the earthworm is replaced by a flatworm, the two parts can survive these childish experiments. What's more, be it skin, intestine or brain, the body part lost through cutting will simply grow again in a matter of days. The creatures involved here are planarians[1], a class of flatworms that are so flat that they need neither lungs nor a heart to take in and distribute oxygen in their bodies. So simple and yet so ingenious? It would appear so. Regeneration studies involving these animals have shown that a dismembered planarian can generate several hundred tiny animals, hence they could "almost be called immortal under the edge of a knife" (Dalyell, 1814). The astonishing aspect here is that both the blueprint and construction material for the regeneration process must be contained in each of the fragments: a small piece of tail, for example, becomes a complete worm under the animal's own strength and using existing resources.

Not the preserve of youth: pluripotency also available in adults

So where do the components needed to rebuild the cellular structures come from? In their search for the answer to this question, scientists have a population of small cells in their sights, namely the approximately five-micrometre-long neoblasts. These cells are found almost everywhere in the planarian body and behave like stem cells: they divide, renew and can form the different cell types that have been lost as a result of amputation (Fig. 1). When the planarian loses a body part or discards its tail for reproduction, the neoblasts are reactivated and migrate to the wound. They divide there and their offspring form a blastema, in which as a result of interplay between various extra- and intra-cellular factors important differentiation and patterning processes take place. Thanks to these processes, in turn, complex structures like the brain are formed. If the neoblasts are eliminated through radiation, for example, the planarian loses its ability to regenerate and dies within a few weeks. The fact that, following transplantation into an irradiated, neoblast-free worm, a single neoblast can produce all cell types and enable the host worm to regain its ability to regenerate shows that at least some neoblasts are pluripotent [2]. In healthy mammals, pluripotency, that is the ability of one cell to produce any given cell type found in an organism, e.g. muscle, nerve or pancreas cells, only arises in the early embryonic stage. Therefore, stable pluripotency in the adult organism is something special but not impossible as long as mechanisms exist for conserving this characteristic as is clearly the case with the planarians.

An in-vivo Petri dish for pluripotent stem cells

The preservation of pluripotency has been an important topic in stem cell research for years, and has mostly been examined up to now using isolated embryonic stem cells. Important transcription factors that can induce and preserve pluripotency were discovered in the course of this research. So what can planarians contribute to the current research if their stem cells cannot be cultivated and reproduced outside of the body? This is precisely where the strength of the planarians as a model system in stem cell research lies: the combination they can offer of a natural extracellular environment and pluripotent stem cells. Whereas cultivated stem cells are normally taken out of their natural environment and all important interactions with neighbouring cells and freely moving molecules are interrupted as a result, the stem cells in planarians can be observed and manipulated under normal conditions in vivo. Therefore, planarians are of interest as "in-vivo Petri dishes" for stem cells, in which not only their mechanisms for preserving pluripotency can be studied, but also their regulation and contribution to regeneration.

A venerable old worm meets ultra-modern next-generation technologies

Although planarians have been renowned as masters of regeneration and research objects for generations, they have undergone a genuine explosion in research interest in recent years. In particular, the possibility of switching off specific genes through RNA interference (RNAi) and the availability of the genome sequence of Schmidtea mediterranea, a planarian species which is especially good at regenerating itself, have contributed to this surge in interest. With the development of modern sequencing procedures, that is 'next generation sequencing', gene expression profiles that provide information about the specific genes activated in particular cells or tissues at particular points in time can now be produced on a large scale. Hence, it is possible to examine which messenger RNAs (mRNAs) are produced that act as molecular templates for the production of proteins. For example, hundreds of these mRNAs are produced after the amputation of a worm's head and their proteins provide potential regulators of the regeneration process [3; 4]. However, the real work only starts here: the extent to which the presence of a particular mRNA also reflects the volume of protein that is active in the cell remains to be determined. It is mainly the proteins in the form of enzymes, signalling molecules and structural elements, and not their mRNAs, that ultimately control the majority of cellular processes. In addition, their production using mRNA templates and their lifetime are precisely regulated processes and the frequency with which an mRNA arises cannot provide any information about these processes. The time has come, therefore, to develop experimental approaches for planarians that extend beyond gene expression analysis and lend greater significance to the subsequent regulatory processes.

Read more here:
How planarians maintain their stem cell pools over generations

Related Post