Communication between "heart genes" in sea anemones and ability of the genes to regenerate may help humans to develop new therapies to treat heart conditions, scientists have found.
The researchers found genes known to form hearts cells in humans and other animals in the gut of a muscle-less and heart-less sea anemone (Nematostella vectensis).
Sea anemones are related to corals and jellyfish and can regenerate into a new animal if it is cut into many pieces.
Analysing the function of its "heart genes," the researchers discovered a difference in the way these genes interact with one another, which may help explain its ability to regenerate, said Mark Martindale, Professor at the University of Florida.
The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, point to the potential for tweaking communication between human genes and stimulating regenerative healing.
"Our study shows that if we learn more about the logic of how genes that give rise to heart cells talk to each other, muscle regeneration in humans might be possible," he added.
These heart genes generate what engineers calls "lockdown loops" in vertebrates and flies, which means that once the genes are turned on, they tell each other to stay on in an animal's cells for its entire lifetime.
In other words, animals with a lockdown on their genes cannot grow new heart parts or use those cells for other functions.
"This ensures that heart cells always stay heart cells and cannot become any other type of cell," Martindale said.
However, in sea anemone embryos, the lockdown loops do not exist. The finding suggests a mechanism for why the gut cells expressing heart genes in sea anemones can turn into other kinds of cells, such as those needed to regenerate damaged body parts, Martindale noted.