First, let me just say that I have every ounce of sympathy for people who have lost limbs, whether in combat or otherwise. And I’m all for using the latest technology to alleviate the suffering of amputees and help them regain their full range of movement. But there are some avenues of research that just shouldn’t be travelled down, no matter what the noble intent, and one of them is studying salamanders to learn how to regrow human limbs.
Scientists working the the US Department of Defense are working on the first steps in this research. They’ve begun by injecting fluorescent dye into the specimens of the highly endangered axolotl salamander. The axolotl, which lives only in the canals surrounding Mexico City, is neotenic, meaning that it spends it’s entire life in a larval state, which allows it to regrow limbs, organs and even parts of it’s brain and spine following injury.
The idea is that, by learning more about how the process works in the axolotl, scientists will eventually be able to apply the process to humans, teaching the body to regrow lost limbs. And as I said before, that’s a noble idea. It is also terribly misguided, and can only end in disaster and heartbreak.
Anyone with a layman’s understanding of comic book and cinematic science can tell you that the mingling of human and animal genetics, especially for the purposes of regrowing limbs, is a horror show waiting to happen. One need look only to the fable of Dr. Curt Connors to see how high the price for a regrown human arm can be. The sad tale of Dirk Benedict in Sssssss only drives home the terrible fate that awaits those who attempt to mix the genetic stuff of man and beast.
As promising as the axolotl research may eventually become, it’s better for all concerned that we continue investing in more immediate benefits borne by advanced prosthetics. We’re at a technological crossroads here, people. Down one path lies cyborgs – down the other, terrible mutants. And frankly, there’s not much room for discussion about which of those is a better scenario.