For the first time, scientists have altered natural bioelectrical communication among cells to directly specify the type of new organ to be created at a particular location within a vertebrate organism. Using genetic manipulation of membrane voltage in Xenopus (frog) embryos, biologists at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences were able to cause tadpoles to grow eyes outside of the head area.
The researchers achieved most surprising results when they manipulated membrane voltage of cells in the tadpole’s back and tail, well outside of where the eyes could normally form. “The hypothesis is that for every structure in the body there is a specific membrane voltage range that drives organogenesis,” said Pai. “These were cells in regions that were never thought to be able to form eyes. This suggests that cells from anywhere in the body can be driven to form an eye.”
To do this, they changed the voltage gradient of cells in the tadpoles’ back and tail to match that of normal eye cells. The eye-specific gradient drove the cells in the back and tail—which would normally develop into other organs—to develop into eyes.
“These results reveal a new regulator of eye formation during development, and suggest novel approaches for the detection and repair of birth defects affecting the visual system,” he said. “Aside from the regenerative medicine applications of this new technique for eyes, this is a first step to cracking the bioelectric code.”