Scientists grow antlers on mice, hope to regrow human limbs

Illustrative image, because you seriously do not want to see the real thing. Photo: TVP World, based on Robert Pearce/Fairfax Media via Getty Images Jon G. and Fuller/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A group of Chinese scientists has transplanted deer genes onto a mouse, causing it to grow antlers. Deer shed and regrow their antlers annually, and it is one of the fastest-growing tissues in the animal world. They hope that their discovery may eventually lead to humans being able to regrow lost limbs.

According to a paper published in the “Science” journal, a group of Chinese scientists led by Toa Qin, were able to grow “mini-antlers” on mice by inserting deer genes into the rodents’ genomes.

While some animals possess stunning regenerative abilities, most mammals have lost them. Deer, however, shed and regrow their antlers annually, and it is one of the fastest-growing tissues in the animal world. Deer antlers grow by 2.75 centimeters (around 1 inch) per day.

The team hopes that it may be possible to harness the rapid growth of antlers in other applications. If it is possible to tweak the genes in the right way, there is hope that they can be used to regrow bones.

Qin’s team managed to isolate multiple single stem cells and genes that are critical in the development of the antler tissue of the Sika species of deer. They then cultivated the isolated genes in a petri dish and transplanted them onto the skulls of living mice.

After 45 days, the mice had developed clearly identifiable mini-antlers which grew rapidly.

Antler tissue and bone tissue, although superficially similar, are not one and the same thing. However, the researchers found that the genetic mechanisms behind the rapid growth of antlers gave them insight that could be utilized in medicine applicable to humans, specifically bone growth.

Apart from being an unsightly abomination (one of the reasons we used an illustrative image instead of an original one), there are some ethical concerns about the cross-species implantation of cells.

Since the underlying mechanisms behind the rapidly regenerating antler tissue may be simply dormant in other mammalian species, already existing genes could possibly be activated to allow the regrowth of lost appendages. That, however, would require extensive further research.