Worms Capable of Regeneration Can Now Also Glow in the Dark

Like Deadpool, three-banded panther worms are able to regenerate body parts on their own. Even their heads. Now, a team of scientists from Harvard has genetically altered the unique worms so they glow in the dark. It’s a feat that’ll allow the scientists to figure out exactly how the worms perform their magic trick. And maybe turn us all into self-healing comic book characters one day?

The Daily Beast reported on the new effort to make three-banded panther worms—which belong to the Hofsteniidae family of acoels—glow in the dark. Acoels are tiny wormlike sea animals that live in marine or brackish waters across the globe. Specifically in the benthic zone, or bottommost portion, of those bodies of water.

An image of a worm that can regenerate itself, and now, glow in the dark thanks to efforts by scientists.
Harvard University/Lorenzo Ricci

As a Harvard press release notes scientists from the university gave the three-banded panther worms the gift of glow to better understand how the creatures regenerate themselves. Specifically, the glow allowed the scientists to visualize with incredible detail what the worm’s cells look like, where the cells are inside their bodies, and how the cells interact with each other.

To make the worms glow the scientists deployed transgenesis; i.e. the process of introducing a modified gene into a recipient organism from its own species, or another one. The gene the scientists inserted into the worms coded for a protein that gives off either a green or red florescent glow. The proteins lit up the worms’ skin cells, for example. Or even their muscle cells.

The scientists were also able to add or subtract specific genetic information from the worms’ genomes. This ability to alter genes as well as make creatures glow in the dark makes transgenesis a powerful bioengineering tool. In this case not only did the combo allow scientists to study the way the worms’ cells were working, but also fundamentally change their physiology. Ultimately the scientists hope this technique will help them to whittle down which genes are responsible for which physical traits.

“We don’t know how any one of these cells actually behave in the animal during regeneration,” Mansi Srivastava, a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard and lead author of the study, said in the press release. “Having the transgenic worms will allow us to watch the cells in the context of the animal as it regenerates.” In the unrelated Harvard tweet above we get a glimpse of how exactly the worms regenerate.

With the transgenic worms the scientists say they’re excited to study how the creatures’ stem cells lead to regeneration. The worms’ stem cells—or neoblasts—are particularly interesting because they’re pluripotent; meaning they’re able to make any other type of cell in the animal. We can only imagine Deadpool puts them in his Seabreeze cocktails.

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