Researchers at the US Marine Biological Laboratory have made some surprising discoveries after decoding the genome of the sea lamprey, a primitive fish, reporting their work in the journal Nature Genetics. Although they’re very different from us, the sea lamprey’s genome contains genes linked to human neurological conditions including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as spinal cord injuries.
Unlike humans, lampreys have an incredible capacity to repair their nervous system - for example, if their spinal cord is cut, they can regenerate it and be back swimming around in as little as ten weeks. But, intriguingly, lampreys don’t have myelin - the insulating material that surrounds our nerve cells. And it’s the molecules associated with myelin that prevent human nerve cells from regenerating when they’re damaged. But the researchers found that lampreys also have these myelin-associated molecules, yet don’t actually make myelin.
By opening up the black box of the lamprey genome, scientists can now find out what’s going on here, and find out whether the lamprey’s regenerative abilities can be exploited for healing human nerves.