The forming of long snakes could be key to spinal repairs

8 Aug 2016

Snakes and spinal cords, an unlikely combination

A report into the genetic make-up of snakes, revealing why they grow so long, could prove integral in future spinal research.

Oct4 might be the gene that helps snakes develop their long, slim bodies, with it staying on during the formative stages of the reptile’s lifetime.

That’s according to new research in the US, with Moisés Mallo and his colleagues finding that the gene – one of the most important in stem cell regulation – could be common among many vertebrates for a reason.

Snake spinal injury repair

The trunk and tail development of invertebrates was considered a bit of a mystery to geneticists, given they didn’t know what triggered extended or shortened lengths.

So, taking a selection of mice with either excessively long or notably short tails and trunks, Mallo and his team got to work.

“We thought that the analysis of these animals could give us the key to unveil the code of trunk formation,” said Mallo.

Upon finding Oct4 as the likely gene behind these developments, the researchers from University of Florida looked at other invertebrates.

It turns out the gene is left active far longer in snakes, placed beside a DNA section that keeps it in an ‘on’ state during long periods of embryonic development.

Saying the formation of body regions is a bit like a “strong-arm contest of genes”, Rita Aires, first author on the study, explained the likely process.

This image shows a snake embryo, via Francisca Leal, University of Florida

This image shows a snake embryo, via Francisca Leal, University of Florida

“Genes involved in trunk formation need to start ceasing activity so that the genes involved in tail formation can start working,” she said.

“In the case of snakes, we observed that the Oct4 gene is kept active during a longer period of embryonic development, which explains why snakes have such a long trunk and a very short tail”, says Rita Aires.

Further research into Oct4 could prove beneficial with regards spinal studies, creating expandable cells within spinal cords to help heal injuries.

Earlier this year, a spongy polymer that fills the space around damaged (or removed) vertebrae to encourage regrowth was developed.

PhD student Lichun Lu and a team of researchers looked at a way of installing a small device that could grow with the human body, eventually landing on a dehydrated spongy structure built to absorb nutrients in the body, growing to fill the space from which bone has been removed.

Other stem-cell studies are also focusing on this area of medicine and surgery.

Main snake image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic