Colorful tunicates, found in coral reefs, can regrow a stomach organ, according to new research. Colorful tunicates, found in coral reefs, can regrow a stomach organ, according to new research. Colorful tunicates, found in coral reefs, can regrow a stomach organ, according to new research. (Photo: Ethan Daniels / Shutterstock)

Coral reef stays alive by playing dead

New research lays blueprint for helping humans renew lost organs.

Ever hear of that small strange sea creature that's gutless? Neither had we. But a new paper in the science journal Nature shows us a new angle to sea life that's stranger than fiction. And it might even help people who have lost internal organs due to disease, genetic disorders or accidents regrow new tissue.

In a coral reef in the Red Sea, Israeli scientists describe a bizarre but common animal that explodes when under stress. The reef-bound creatures are from a species of coral reef animals called tunicates. They are invertebrates, or soft-bodied animals, that cling to a reef to live.

When approached by danger – like a hungry pufferfish, or the hand of a scientist – the creatures with the scientific name Polycarpa mytiligera appear to commit suicide by ejecting out its stomach organ.

But it’s just playing dead.

With a hint of intuition, one of the scientists decided to keep an eye on what appeared to be a dead specimen. Turns out it was still alive. And that the creature could regenerate a new gut organ during a period of 12 days.

Humans and tunicates share some evolutionary similarities. This prompted Dr. Noa Shenkar, the lead zoologist in the study from Tel Aviv University, to say that the organisms regenerated tissues “as if they had been reborn."

"This information can be used to study different biochemical pathways involved in soft-tissue regeneration," Shenkar said.

Like a gecko that loses its tail, this phenomenon can lead scientists to better understand the biological systems that may help them renew lost organs or tissues in human bodies.

Tunicates are abundant creatures. By knowing more about them, researchers also may be better equipped to find new solutions to better conserve oceans as the consequences of climate change take hold.

The acclaimed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Mass. is the world's largest private, non-profit oceanographic research institution. Scott Smith is an environmental entrepreneur who collaborates with the researchers at Woods Hole. He was recently selected to be the chief scientist for the American-based group Water Defense, a non-profit founded by activist and actor Mark Ruffalo. Smith knows the importance of looking to nature to solve contemporary man-made pollution

Smith looks to the biology of human lungs, and even the water-borne plant eelgrass, to see how existing biological systems can be applied to cleaning up oil spills at sea. Through his work he's developed an artificial eelgrass.

How about an artificial stomach? He told From The Grapevine that “watching Mother Nature is key for coming up with solutions that can solve human problems ... In my work I’ve come up with a solution for imitating the alveoli of our lungs to clean water. It’s an area in science called biomimicry. And that’s what the researchers looking at coral reef animals are doing in the Red Sea.

“Mother Nature can teach us so much: like how to design filters based on the shapes of squid or octopus to test water conditions, and as we see in this new Nature paper, inspire science to solve big challenges like tissue regeneration," Smith said.


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