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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Regrowing Limbs

All my cyborg daydreams have just been crushed, ladies and gentlemen. I'm heartbroken, absolutely heartbroken that there is a possible future without men and guns combined into one beautiful being.


Mechanical limbs, or replacement body parts, were in use as far back as the early Egyptian cultures. The common trope in sci-fi is adapting mechanical limbs to shiner, deadlier levels.

Instead of a replacement toe a cyborg in sci-fi might have a laser cannon arm. Awesome!

Less so in real life.

Think of all the hassle! TSA is not going to let you fly with a grenade launcher attached to your body. You'd have to check your arm. That would just be weird, and painful.

In real life prosthetic devices are often ungainly and uncomfortable. Yes, you have an arm there, but it isn't doing much. Yes, a laser cannon is cool, but it can't help you play dolls with your kid.

The obvious solution is creating a way for patients to regrow limbs.

Elizabeth Moon plays with this idea in the Vatta's War series. We know several species of lizard can regrow lost tails. And every human that has lost a limb grew that limb at least once. The trick is to convince the body to repeat the feat.

Now some scientists from Tufts has published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience detailing an experiment wherein the scientists regrew tadpole tales.

This article does a pretty good job of breaking down the science-speak into normal English (for all of you who didn't graduate with advanced degrees in cellular biology).

What the scientists at Tufts found was that sodium (Na) deficiency at certain stages of growth, and after amputation, could limit growth of a new tail. One hour exposure to a sodium ion solution allowed the tail to begin regrowth.

Sodium, and one hour.

Sixty minutes, and an element that found in 67.8% of the Earth (plus some... that figure is just the salt water portion of our planet). The sixth most common element.

Can you imagine walking into a hospital and telling an amputee patient that?

"Lost your leg in a car accident? Gosh, well, let's put in a movie for you and soak that knee for a bit."

Obviously, the science isn't quite there yet. But it's getting there. This is a technique that's moving from fiction, straight into science history.

Think of all of the possibilities!

Think of all the fictional possibilities!

Regrow limbs. Regrow bodies?

Sodium as a limiting factor for extrasolar exploration?

Salt wars in the future?

Where do you see this going?

Galaxy image from NASA stock open source. Frog shadow found here, all rights and thanks to copyright holder.


  1. There was a short story we read ages and ages ago when I was in junior high, I think, wherein the main character's dad had found a way of regrowing human limbs by studying starfish. (I don't know if it's true in life, but in the story starfish could regrow limbs and sometimes even grow two limbs in place of the one lost.)

    I wish I could remember the title but it was so cool at the time because it really was something out of sci-fi. And it included a shark attack in the plot. So, yeah, scary but kinda cool.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. I know of a novel that fits that description (although the kid of the guy who figures this out isn't the main character - the lab assistant is): Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle

  2. Where do you come up with these posts? You're making me think too much in the mornings. ;)

    I think artificial organs that are half mechanical half organic are what comes next. But yeah, that would definitely be a pain to get through airport security!

    Great post!

  3. Stephanie - I would love to read the story if you ever recall the title. :o)

    Tere- I hit the stumble button and it gives me all sorts of random things. This was one of them that I thought was worth sharing. There's so much potential here!

    We've come a long way from crushing diamonds to cure colds.

  4. The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle sounds like it's what I'm remembering. But I can't be sure. (Also no idea how to get hold of it.)

  5. Yeah, I'd prefer to have my own arm back than a weird, mechanical widget. I mean, imagine getting a computer virus in your arm.... I don't want to have to reboot body parts.

  6. Stephanie - I'll see if I can hunt that down.

    Shannon- That needs to be a short story. A cyborg with a computer virus? I love that! These are the things Picard never thought of when dealing with the Borg (at least not in an episode I remember).

  7. I like the shiny cyborg option in sf, but regrowth is just as valid. Where I see the regrowth issue going (in terms of how I'd use it in a story) is that 1) regrowth can be used for more interesting things than just regrowing the same old limb, and 2) the use of genetic therapy and/or induced spot mutations, such as tweaking the genetics of a limb so that you have a tentacle or something.