Studying “Superhero” Salamanders

Fachon 1With its frilly gills and beady wide-set eyes, the axolotl’s innocuous appearance does little to reveal its amazing biological capabilities. These Mexican salamanders are the superheroes of the amphibian world– impervious to cancer and bacterial infection, and able to completely regenerate missing limbs and heal wounds without scarring. This semester, I have had the amazing opportunity to work with these animals as an undergraduate researcher in the Monaghan Laboratory.

Directed by Professor James Monaghan, the lab is investigating the cellular mechanisms behind axolotl regeneration. Over the semester, I have been working with graduate students Johanna Farkas and Lina Bystrova to identify the role of nerves in limb re-growth. Right now, we already know that if a limb is de-nervated prior to or shortly after amputation, it will not regenerate. We want to know what factors the nerve contributes to regeneration, and if there is any way to rescue regeneration without the presence of a nerve. In order to investigate this, I am currently working on the histology and immunohistochemical analysis on amputated limbs.  The money that I received from the Honors Undergraduate Research Grant, was used to purchase supplies for animal handling and tissue staining. We section the amputated limbs into thin slices and put them onto slides, then use fluorescent antibodies to target specific cells and functions that we want to image. For example, we have one antibody that marks dying cells, and another that targets dividing cells. Through different techniques, we hope to get a big picture of what is going on inside of the regenerating limb.

Regenerative science has so much potential to improve modern healing practices. What we are doing is basic biomedical research, asking questions like “How?” and “Why?” The answers to these questions may have downstream effects on how we approach medicine. It is important to understand everything we can about how axolotls (and other organisms) regenerate lost parts so that we may someday be able to induce similar processes in mammals and humans.

As an undergraduate, it is so exciting to be involved in such important research. I am a second-year Biology major from Rhode Island, and before coming to college I never anticipated being a part of something like this. I have learned so much over the course of the semester, and I hope to continue with this work during the rest of my time at Northeastern.

Evangeline Fachon, Biology