This heartless sea creature could help us regenerate human hearts

July 5, 2017, 7:05 a.m.
A tube anemone glowing with bioluminescence.
Photo: Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock

The sea anemone has no heart. In fact, what muscles it has are far more basic than most other animals. And yet, these little ocean creatures hold the clues for creating new hearts out of the cells from other organs.

According to a recent study by University of Florida researchers, the starlet sea anemone (Nematostella vectensis, related to the tube anemone shown above) has an enviable ability: Chop it up into pieces and it can regenerate itself as each piece grows into a new organism. How can it recreate specific cells with specific abilities? If we can answer this question, we may be able to figure out how to do it ourselves.

The study found that the heart genes of vertebrates and flies have what the researchers call "lockdown loops," meaning once the genes are turned on, they know their job and stick with it for the lifetime of the animal.

"In other words, animals with a lockdown on their genes cannot grow new heart parts or use those cells for other functions," reports University of Florida News.

But sea anemone embryos don’t have these lockdown loops. Hence, the regenerating-from-chopped-up-bits superpower. And if we can figure out the secret of communication between cells to tweak these lockdown loops, we might be able to master that same superpower.

“Our study shows that if we learn more about the logic of how genes that give rise to heart cells talk to each other, muscle regeneration in humans might be possible,” says Mark Martindale, UF biology professor and director of the Whitney Lab for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine.