A microscopic worm by the name of Schistosoma mansoni has been long credited with a long lifespan and an uncanny knack for regeneration. Thanks to recent research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the worm’s secret is out: it utilizes adult stem cells to restore and replace itself at will.
S. mansoni is a parasite. It hatches in animal feces, where it gets its first nutrients, then moves on to invade snails for much its youth. When it matures, it likes to find a human host to burrow inside and trust with its eggs. It’s a win-win situation for the worm: if the human excretes the eggs, then the life cycle starts from the beginning; if the eggs hatch inside the human, then the fresh parasites have a ready host from the start. When the body takes action to remove the invaders, it’s in for an unpleasant surprise. S. mansoni embed themselves in vital organs like the liver, so damage done against the microscopic squatters damages tissue at the same time.
(Image of S. mansoni courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
In more impoverished areas of the world (where the presence of feces in or near a water source is more of a risk), these little parasites pose a major health problem. The World Health Organization estimates that over 230 million people require treatment for such infections annually. Doctors and researchers have been vexed by the longevity and durability of S. mansoni, which can last in the body for decades and bounce back quickly from medicinal onslaughts.
Such is the cheerful setting that greeted professors Phillip Newmark and James J. Collins III (pictured left, courtesy of UIUC) of the University of Illinois when they began studying this particular specimen. “The female lays eggs more or less continuously, on the order of hundreds of eggs per day,” states Newmark in a U of I article. Perhaps if the researchers could find and disable the worms’ fountain of youth, they could significantly reduce that number.
“We started with the big question: How does a simple parasite survive in a host for decades?” Newmark says of the initial stages of the research process. “That implies that it has ways of repairing and maintaining its tissues.”
Specifically, S. mansoni is equipped with a massive number of adult stem cells, which surround each of the creature’s vital organs. They immediately regenerate damaged or aging tissue, even if there is only a shred of the target organ remaining in the body. And if the stem cells begin to run thin, they have the capability to duplicate their DNA and then divide themselves in order to conquer the next task. The researchers watched the cells work by labeling them with fluorescent markers and noting that certain cells would simply become part of a given tissue, behavior typical of stem cells.
“This study gives us insight into the really interesting biology of these parasites, and it may also open up new doors for making that life cycle a lot shorter.” For example, Collins was able to identify a gene that assisted in the replication of the stem cells. The advantage to such a discovery is twofold: it allows researchers to gain a better understanding of how to make use of stem cells in the future, and it enables the deactivation of such a gene to cut short the lifespan of S. mansoni in the present.
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