Vladimir Mashanov dipped his finger into the saltwater in a beige tray holding a few brittle stars — tiny, five-armed sea creatures, gathered off the coast of Panacea in the Florida Panhandle.
Those brittle stars and we humans, he said, go way back. Way, way back, to a common ancestor he admits is kind of mind-boggling to think about.
That connection, Mashanov believes, could one day prove crucial to human beings.
It all comes down to those five arms of the brittle star: When one arm is grabbed by a predator or, say, a set of tweezers in Mashanov’s lab at the University of North Florida, brittle stars can quickly jettison part of that arm and make their escape.
But in a month or so, that arm has grown back to full size. They’ve regenerated their own arms, as the lopsided animals in that beige tray are doing.
Could science advance enough one day so humans could do something like that? Perhaps not regrowing a missing arm — though even that is not beyond the realm of possibility, Mashanov says. But how about regenerating a damaged part of the central nervous system?
That’s a very real prospect, he says.
“We humans probably have some dormant, latent capacities that are repressed. By introducing really little external agents, we can probably unleash that hidden regenerative capacity in us,” he said. “But no one knows yet. Some people might say we have lost that forever, but I don’t really think so.”
Mashanov, 38, grew up in Vladivostok, Russia. He began research into this field as a sophomore in college, and continued it through his doctoral and post-doctoral work, and also during nine years he spent at the University of Puerto Rico, where he gathered sea cucumbers — which also have regenerative powers — off the beach near campus.
He’s been at UNF for eight months as an assistant professor of biology. He’s still trying to get used to Jacksonville’s traffic, but says the transition has otherwise been smooth.
Along with four undergraduates researchers, he’s examining brittle fish on a cellular and molecular level to try to find out why they can do what we can’t do. Other researchers around the world are taking the challenge as well, part of a growing field of science that once seemed the province of science-fiction.
Humans already have some regenerative capacity: We already regrow skin. Our livers can regenerate themselves. And in the embryonic stage, humans have regenerative powers: That’s how an embryo develops.
That ability is soon largely lost in humans. However, some animals, including brittle stars, never lose it. They can regenerate again and again. If scientists can figure out why that is so, perhaps the latent capacity Mashanov talks about can somehow be switched on.
He’s particularly interested in the human central nervous system: the brain and spinal cord. Since each brittle star arm has a nerve core inside, similar to our spinal cord that, to him, seems a fruitful avenue of study.
In his lab, Mashanov and his students have a control group of brittle stars that aren’t forced to regenerate their arms. They compare those with the brittle stars growing new arms, examining the regenerating tissue and sequencing its RNA.
“They completely regrow their lost regions of the central nervous system, so we are looking at how they accomplish this at cellular and molecular levels,” he said. “What can we learn from those animals so we can design a new, efficient and minimally invasive technique to treat humans?”
The work is slow , building in tiny increments on what’s been learned already. He expects more collaborations with other scientists down the road as what was once science-fiction gets closer to reality.
Mashanov gave a wry grin. “I’ll have enough to do until the end of my career,” he said.
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082