The power of regeneration and the stem-cell kingdom: freshwater planarians (Platyhelminthes)



The great powers of regeneration shown by freshwater planarians, capable of regenerating a complete organism from any tiny body fragment, have attracted the interest of scientists throughout history. In 1814, Dalyell concluded that planarians could “almost be called immortal under the edge of the knife”. Equally impressive is the developmental plasticity of these platyhelminthes, including continuous growth and fission (asexual reproduction) in well-fed organisms, and shrinkage (degrowth) during prolonged starvation. The source of their morphological plasticity and regenerative capability is a stable population of totipotent stem cells—“neoblasts”; this is the only cell type in the adult that has mitotic activity and differentiates into all cell types. This cellular feature is unique to planarians in the Bilateria clade. Over the last fifteen years, molecular studies have begun to reveal the role of developmental genes in regeneration, although it would be premature to propose a molecular model for planarian regeneration. Genomic and proteomic data are essential in answering some of the fundamental questions concerning this remarkable morphological plasticity. Such information should also pave the way to understanding the genetic pathways associated with metazoan somatic stem-cell regulation and pattern formation. BioEssays 28: 546–559, 2006. © 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.