Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Claire is a newt!

If you read any other science fiction or tech-related blogs, you've probably seen the news that Gawker media has launched a science fiction-related blog, io9. It looks like the team of contributors, lead by former Wired News writer Annalee Newitz, are posting on both pop culture sci-fi (like Star Trek) and "gee whiz" science and technology. From the first day's posts it looks like the tone is pretty light and breezy. So far there has been a bit of biology (e.g., regrowing skin), but it bothers me a bit that what are essentially press releases are quoted without any kind of critical evaluation at all. I guess that's why I still have topics to blog about in my special rambling style *grin*.

An example is one of today's io9 posts showed a image of deformed frogs that Newitz identifies as "mutants". Now one of my pet peeves is the use of the term "mutant" to refer to a human or other creature with a deformity, even when the deformity is not caused by a changing the sequence of DNA (AKA mutation). It's been pretty well established that toxic pesticides and parasites interfere with normal limb development, but don't alter the frogs' genes, so that's just lazy posting, especially since the image is originally from the "toxic pesticides and parasites" article link*.

The post did get me thinking, though, about Claire Bennet. In season 1 of Heroes, Claire used her ability to rapidly heal to help save the world. As season 2 opens we find Claire attending a new high school in southern California, where she's taking biology. Now Claire's bio teacher is a bit unorthodox, since he has the class light their bunsen burners as a prelude to a lecture about Darwin (yes, I know, it's so Claire could play with the fire). He catches Claire's interest when he talks about the the ability of lizards to regenerate their limbs. Now this is also a bit odd, because while there are lizards that can regenerate their tails, limb regeneration in vertebrates is mostly limited to amphibians like newts and salamanders*, but we'll just have to assume that in the Heroes universe lizards are newt-like. Claire convinces herself that her ability to heal is very much like limb regeneration. Not at all squeamish, she tests the idea on one of her toes, and, sure enough, her toe grows back. It looks very much like a sped-up version of this cool video of newt limb regeneration (7.1Mb Quicktime) from the Limb Regeneration Laboratory of David Gardiner and Susan Bryant at UC Irvine.

What I like about this special ability of hers is that it's within the realm of the biologically possible, unlike time travel or telekinesis. Last year Dr. Belmonte and colleagues at the Salk Institute showed that activating the Wnt growth factor could stimulate limb regeneration in chick embryos. While that's a far cry from regrowing an adult human arm, it opens the door to that possibility. Maybe at some point in the future, we'll all be like newts.

* No fancy detective work needed, since Googling "deformed frogs" brings up the image and article on the first page of hits.

** In doing a bit of background from this post, I've found that some people seem to think that salamanders are a kind of reptile, which is perhaps Claire's problem.
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Ford said...

Welcome back.

arvind mishra said...

Quite Interesting! May be one day we could successfully transfer a 'regeneration gene ' to human embryos and get it activated to assume it's primeval function in humans too.What an interesting way of sci-fictional thinking!!