Real-Life Multi-headed Mini-Monsters Created in Lab!

One of the most amazing creatures that exist on our planet is the immortal hydra, a freshwater animal that is able to completely regenerate another version of itself from a tiny sliver of its own body.

The usual result is as shown in the image below.  A long skinny body, with one foot and one head covered in tentacles.  Cute, huh?  Scroll down to find out what happens after scientists make one little genetic tweak.


How Monsters are Made

Researchers found out that when they make that one little tweak, they were able to produce hydras like the one seen above, but with a twist.  The new hydras were able to sprout multiple heads all over their entire body.

So, how did they do this?  The researchers started with the most basic building blocks that make hydras generate into their usual form.  For example, one gene, called Wnt3, is what prompts the hydra’s head to grow.

Knowing that the gene probably contained a means to prevent overgrowth, they sought out how to disable this from happening.  In other words, they wanted to find a way to turn this gene off.

A Genetic Success

Thanks to Brigitte Galliot, a professor of genetics and evolution at the University of Geneva, they were able to make this happen.  After careful study, Galliot and her team were able to narrow down the three genes that were the most active during regeneration; Wnt3, Wnt5 and Sp5.

Because they already knew that Wnt3 and Wnt5 involved the head-growing process, they decided to focus the most on Sp5.  They believed that by limiting the production of Sp5, it might shut down the ability of the Wnt3 gene to control how many heads the hydra could regenerate.

It turns out that their study was quite successful, as you can see by the result below:

This is a hydra that has developed multiple heads thanks to ingesting too much of a protein called Sp5. Photo Credit: Brigitte Galliot, Unige

Hope for the Future

What makes this study so remarkable is that it might help in research involving cancer.  This is because Wnt3 isn’t unique to simple creatures like the hydra above.  It is also found in other animals and even humans.

The gene can affect embryonic development and is a crucial driver in some forms of cancer.  Galliot is hoping that manipulation of the Sp5 gene can help prevent those forms of cancer from growing.

“What we learn from simple organisms like this tell us what kind of test we can do in mammals to understand better,” she said. “It gives us a direction.”, said Galliot.