Aztec legend states that the god Xolotl (a real scoundrel) was afraid the other gods would try to destroy him because of his disruptive pranks. So, rather than face the particularly moody other gods, Xolotl decided to transform into a salamander. Xolotl escaped into Lake Xochimilco, hiding from the angry gods. Xolotl entered the lake as the amphibian axolotl, (pronounced axo-LO-tuhls) also known as the Mexican walking fish. By changing forms to the feathery-gilled axolotl salamander, Xolotl was able to escape being sacrificed.
Flash forward to today with polluted networks of garbage-choked waterways, imported fish from other continents hungry for a god’s feast and the loss of habitat due to the introduction of invasive species like tilapia and carp have all add up to pushing the transformed salamanders closer and closer to extinction.
“They are about to go extinct,” said Sandra Balderas Arias, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico working to conserve axolotls in the wild. “The loss of this salamander in its habitat would extinguish one of the few natural links Mexicans still have with the city that the Aztecs built on islands in a network of vast mountain lakes. Its extinction in the wild could also erase clues for scientists studying its mystifying traits. Despite their uncertain future in freshwater, axolotls have long flourished in aquariums. They have been bred successfully behind glass over the past century, raised as exotic pets or as laboratory specimens for scientists investigating their extraordinary ability to regrow a severed limb or tail.”
Limb and organ regeneration is able because axolotls are
‘neoteny,’ which means that the creature can reach maturity without
going through a metamorphosis. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies
wants to know how regeneration works in the axolotl.
In 2012 they released two studies and are hopeful that once fully understood this process might be recreated in humans. Sadly, this has not been an easy undertaking, and the process might be much more complicated than first expected. Scientists are not even positive that humans have the necessary genes to be able to successfully regenerated limbs and organs like the axolotl.
Is there a silver lining? You bet! These little regrowing powerhouses are giving science enough new information to hopefully shed some light on state-of-the-art alternative healing techniques.