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Established by NIGMS in 1982 and presented annually in honor of Dr. Stetten, the third NIGMS director, this annual lecture is part of the Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series.
Salamanders and starfish might be “simpler” than humans, but they far surpass us in one major way—the ability to regenerate tissues and regrow lost limbs. Dr. Sánchez Alvarado studies regeneration using the flatworm planaria Schmidtea mediterranea. Remarkably, when halved or quartered (even by high school students) this organism can clone itself from the pieces. More than 100 years ago, that feat captured the attention of geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, who studied planarians years before his famed work on fruit flies.
As astonishing as the planarian regenerative capacities are, Dr. Sánchez Alvarado thinks we all have a bit of “planaria” hidden in our genomes. “You and I are turning over a number of cells equivalent to our body weight every year,” he says. “I lost billions of cells yesterday, but this morning I still recognized myself in the mirror. That’s because basic mechanisms are in place to retain our original form and function.”