MDI Biological Laboratory

Understanding Regeneration: A Monumental Quest

  • November 1, 2017

MDI Biological Laboratory scientist James Godwin, Ph.D. (left), with Thon Itthipalakorn, a research assistant in his laboratory. 

James Godwin, Ph.D., attributes his interest in science in part to his childhood dog, Timmy. A cross between a fox terrier and an Australian kelpie, Timmy was a herding dog and the center of Godwin’s life as a boy in his native Australia. When he saw a television documentary about how some animals’ coats turn white in winter, Godwin wondered why Timmy couldn’t do the same. When he visited his grandparents’ farm, he wondered how the city-bred dog instinctively knew how to control errant sheep, a mystery that was compounded by his grandfather’s explanation that it was “in his blood.” But it was a documentary on the ability of salamanders to regrow limbs that really piqued his curiosity. “By that stage, I knew people who had experienced serious injuries,” he says. “I’d been told that the body couldn’t repair itself. But yet the salamander had overcome these limitations. Why don’t we know how to do this? I wondered. The most important question for me became, Why can some animals change the color of their coats, or work a herd of sheep or regrow limbs, while others can’t? I wasn’t interested in looking into the cosmos. I wanted to understand the biology underlying these qualities.”

That quest eventually led Godwin to a doctorate in immunology from Melbourne University, followed by post-doctoral work at University College London. “Those nature documentaries have a lot to answer for,” he jokes. He arrived at the MDI Biological Laboratory last year from the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute with the goal of studying the role of the immune system in limb and heart regeneration in the axolotl, or Mexican salamander (see sidebar). The availability of new genetic tools, including a public catalog of its genes, have made the axolotl a powerful tool in understanding regeneration. “I’m like a kid in a candy shop,” he says of these tools, which allow scientists to study the axolotl at the molecular level. Because he holds a dual appointment with The Jackson Laboratory, which studies mice, he is also seeking insight into how to reverse-engineer the process of regeneration in humans by comparing the genetics of the axolotl, which can regenerate, with those of the mouse, which for the most part cannot.

Godwin recognizes that the task of understanding regeneration is a monumental one. “Basically, we know nothing about how regeneration occurs,” he says. But he is heartened by the “game-changing” progress enabled by the development of new genetic tools and thrilled to be a part of the discoveries these tools will make possible. “It’s a good time to be involved,” he says. “It’s going to be an interesting ride.”

Read more on the research of James Godwin, Ph.D.