Guest post: The a-​​capella-​​singing salamander scientist

Today’s guest post comes to you from the capable hands of blos­soming sci­ence writer Gwen Schanker, AMD’18. Schanker just com­pleted her first year at North­eastern, where she studies jour­nalism and biology. She is a reg­ular con­trib­utor to The Hunt­ington News and the NU Sci­ence Mag­a­zine, as well as sev­eral other pub­li­ca­tions around the web. You can find more of her writing at her own blog, Con­fes­sions of an Aspiring Sci­ence Jour­nalist.


Axolotl sala­man­ders’ ability to regrow their limbs has been on sci­en­tists’ radar since 2006, and research on this phe­nom­enon and the devel­op­ments it could lead to in regen­er­a­tive biology hasn’t slowed down since. Not too long ago, Wired Mag­a­zine named the Mex­ican axolotl its “Absurd Crea­ture of the Week.” The hope is that with enough research, biol­o­gists will learn the unique con­di­tions under which the sala­man­ders’ limbs regen­erate after being amputated.

Studying these crea­tures requires the ded­i­ca­tion of teams from all over, including a group of North­eastern students—both under­grad­uate and graduate—who work with biology pro­fessor James Mon­aghan to examine the genomes of axolotl sala­man­ders and to deter­mine the fac­tors required for regeneration.

It’s no secret that North­eastern is abuzz with sci­en­tific inquiry, and the researchers strug­gling for answers aren’t hard to find either. When I found out that Dan Humphrey, S’18, a second-​​year bio­chem­istry major with whom I walk back and forth from tutoring math at the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club on Tuesday after­noons, who is also part of the on-​​campus a cap­pella group Dis­tilled Har­mony, was a recently inte­grated member of Monaghan’s research team, I saw an oppor­tu­nity to hone my skills as a sci­ence writer.

And so, in an inter­view at Monaghan’s lab in mid-​​April, I met up with Humphrey to dis­cuss what the researchers are doing and why it’s impor­tant. Through a Q-​​and-​​A fol­lowed by count­less clar­i­fi­ca­tion ques­tions, which Humphrey answered with the help of some of his col­leagues, I grad­u­ally began to under­stand the details of the lab and the work the stu­dents do on a daily basis.

The sala­man­ders are kept in a light– and temperature-​​controlled space and are used to examine how fac­tors like chem­ical and light expo­sure affect limb regen­er­a­tion. The researchers use retinoic acid, which Mon­aghan dis­cov­ered was a key to regen­er­a­tion when he was a post­doc­toral stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Florida. When retinoic acid is added to a sev­ered part of the salamander’s body, it causes the limb to regrow from the beginning.

To observe the regen­er­a­tion process, the researchers use cloning to create probes which bind to a site on the sala­mander through flu­o­res­cent in situ hybridiza­tion, also known as FISH. The probes attach to anti­bodies on a spe­cific mRNA pro­tein, which is viewed under a flu­o­res­cence microscope.

To regrow their limbs, the sala­man­ders undergo a series of steps not unlike the steps the human body goes through after an injury. No research team has deter­mined exactly where the human healing process dif­fers from the axolotl regen­er­a­tion process—that is, what genes are switched on and off at what times.

That’s hardly sur­prising, con­sid­ering the sala­man­ders have an esti­mated 10 times as much DNA as humans do. Partly for that reason, the researchers are still some dis­tance away from human limb regeneration.

Whether he’s slicing strands of DNA through gel elec­trophoresis or cleaning the sala­man­ders’ tanks, Humphrey loves working in the lab. He will be on co-​​op next semester at Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­eral Hos­pital, studying the inher­ited dis­order Mucol­ipi­dosis Type IV, but Humphrey hopes to stay involved if he can. According to Humphrey, becoming part of Monaghan’s team required a sending a number of “insanely per­sis­tent” emails and accli­mating to a sub­stan­tial learning curve, but he assured me the expe­ri­ence has been well worth it.

And my expe­ri­ence? Well, I’ve still got a ways to go before I under­stand all the steps of FISH, let alone how to inte­grate them into a set of inter­view ques­tions. Nev­er­the­less, I know a lot more about regen­er­a­tive biology than I did two months ago.

Fur­ther­more, after learning that my a-​​cappella singing, Tuesday-​​afternoon math tutoring friend is part of such an impactful project, I can’t help but wonder what other life-​​changing research the stu­dents I spend time with each week are involved in. It’s become clear in my first year here that North­eastern is a hub for sci­en­tific research and dis­cus­sion, and I’m excited to become a more inte­gral part of it all.