Regenerative skin and brains – could we learn to mimic snakes?

Is there something a doctor performing tissue transplantations could learn from snakes and lizards? Dr Nicolas Di-Poï, specialist in evolution and embryonic development, is investigating the matter by studying skulls and tissue regeneration.

While working as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Geneva, Nicolas Di-Poï became interested in the mechanisms of embryonic development and the evolution of species. Di-Poï’s evodevo research – a term derived from the words evolution and development – continues on the Viikki Campus, at the Institute of Biotechnology, University of Helsinki, where Di-Poï leads a research group.

A snake is able to regrow a large part of its brain.

“Studying reptiles and lizards has many advantages over studying mice. Snakes have many other interesting features besides shedding their skin. They can, for example, regenerate a large part of their brain, and in other respects too, their capacity for tissue regeneration is on an entirely different level than in mammals,” explains Di-Poï.

“Monitoring generational variation and studying the brain at the different stages of embryonic development in reptiles is not only faster, but also kinder than with mice,” the principle investigator argues in hopes that the research that his group is engaged in can serve medicine in the development of, for instance, new methods of tissue transplantation. 

“We are striving to bring evodevo and stem cell biology together in an innovative fashion that explains changes in the regulation of gene expression,” he describes.

Laying eggs regularly, consuming meals infrequently

According to Di-Poï, snakes and lizards are pleasant research partners: when they live in species-appropriate conditions with suitable humidity and temperature, they lay their eggs in the sand regularly, and thus provide material for research on the regeneration of craniofacial tissue.

“Some lizards are big eaters, but snakes make do with fairly infrequent meals. They are not very demanding.

Some snakes may not eat for two or three weeks while still digesting their previous prey. But this means that they will not lay eggs either,” explains Di-Poï.

A further advantage of snakes is their longevity. They can live for several decades.

The female is the most valued

Di-Poï’s group has a snake room that accommodates some 80 specimens of reptiles and lizards from various parts of the world. The egg producers, i.e., the females, are the most valuable to the researchers.

Each species lives in appropriate conditions specific to their needs.

“Some come from the desert, some from the tropics. We try to simulate their natural habitats as closely as possible,” Di-Poï says.

However, they need not do everything themselves.  Colleagues exchange information on exotic species regardless of borders between states.

“French crocodile researchers provide us with the results of their laboratory tests. This means that we do not have to import crocodile eggs,” Di-Poï laughs.

In Finland, Di-Poï’s group cooperates with the tropical animal house Tropicario, which houses pythons, among others.

“The snakes and lizards we use in our research are harmless,” he assures.

The Mecca of evodevo

The most valuable partners can perhaps be found in the home university. The Viikki Campus is an established setting of evodevo research.

Professor Jukka Jernvall’s research on the evolution of dentition in rodents is well-known across the world and lauded by the journal Nature. In fact, the Centre of Excellence in Experimental and Computational Developmental Biology led by Jernvall is among the most important partners for Di-Poï’s group.

In addition, Professor Mikael Fortelius, an evolutionary palaeontologist and Academician Irma Thesleff, a specialist in orthodontics, have paved the way for the progress made internationally in developmental biology. Professor Scott Gilbert, an expert on the tortoise shell, also worked in Viikki and is known as one of the pioneers of evodevo worldwide.

“The University’s Museum of Natural History and, for example, the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin are also important cooperation partners for us.  We are also in regular contact with many European and American research laboratories because of our need for rare animal and tissue samples,” concludes Di-Poï.