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Allen Discovery Center researchers use bioelectric code to override genetic code

May 23, 2017

Researchers at the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University have shown that permanent changes to body shape can be made by resetting their bioelectric code, effectively overriding the preset genetic code. The results published today in Biophysical Journal show the power of the bioelectric code to control large-scale body shape, and perhaps provide a powerful tool for regenerative medicine.  The finding opens a fundamentally new scientific door to re-writing tissue shapes at will, using the external bioelectric code as a kind of software that tells the genetic hardware what instructions to execute.

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“With this work, we now know that bioelectric properties can permanently override the default body shape called for by a genome, that regenerative target morphology can be edited to diverge from the current anatomy, and that bioelectric networks can be a control point for investigating cryptic, previously-unobservable phenotypes,” says Michael Levin, Ph.D., director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts.

The flatworm species planaria is known for its regenerative abilities. When cut into pieces, each fragment of the worm regrows its missing pieces to become an entire worm, typically identical to the original worm. Levin’s team altered the worms' bioelectric codes by interrupting the electrical communication between networks of cells. When these worms were segmented, 25 percent of them grew two heads. Though researchers initially thought the 72 percent of worms that grew just one head were unaffected, when these worms were segmented, they produced the same ratio of two-headed to one-headed worms.

These results point to the power of the bioelectric code not only to control body plan, but to store memory of shape alterations--even if they do not involve the genome.

“The altered regenerative body plan is stored in the bioelectric networks in the cells of seemingly normal planaria, and the body-wide bioelectric gradients serve as a kind of pattern memory,” said Fallon Durant, the paper’s first author. “Bioelectric signals can act as a switch that not only can change body plan anatomy but also undo those changes when reversed.”

Read more about this work on the Tufts news website.

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