While progenitor cell populations have been identified within most mammalian organs, including skin, skeletal muscle, brain, and heart, these cells vary widely in frequency and the ability to regenerate damaged or lost tissue, they said. In most mammalian organs, progenitor cells can restore cells lost in the course of normal organ function or after minor injury but cannot regenerate after major damage or removal of structures.
"It is believed that the capacity for regeneration is an ancestral condition that has occasionally been lost in the course of vertebrate evolution." Poss said. "Thus, most biologists suspect that the machinery to optimize regeneration from progenitor cells is present, but lies dormant, in mammals."
In an earlier study, Poss and his colleagues found that zebrafish have a unique ability to regenerate cardiac muscle after major injury. They further suspected that illumination of the fishes' ability might offer important insights into "how heart regeneration is naturally optimized."
In the current study, they found that heart regeneration proceeds through two coordinated stages. First, a mass of undifferentiated, pre-cardiac cells form. Those progenitor cells then begin to differentiate and divide, to replace the damaged heart muscle.
In the second step, the epicardium surrounding the heart chambers "lights up" with activity as developmental genes switch on, Poss said. The epicardium expands to rapidly cover the wounded heart muscle.
A subset of those epicardial cells then alters their identity, invading the wound and providing essential new blood vessels to the growing muscle.
They further found that the two-part regeneration process is coordinated by so-called "fibrob