Humans could one day be able to regrow body parts if scientists manage to reawaken hidden DNA.
A study of zebra fish – which can regrow injured tissue – have identified the mechanism that activates the genes.
The team found that these “enhancer elements” switch on regeneration genes at the site of an injury, allowing things like missing fins to grow back.
The researchers say these elements could be engineered in other animals to allow advanced regeneration.
Senior author Dr Kenneth D Poss, from the Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina, said: “We want to know how regeneration happens, with the ultimate goal of helping humans realise their full regenerative potential.
“Our study points to a way that we could potentially awaken the genes responsible for regeneration that we all carry within us.”
A gene called leptin b is turned on in zebra fish when they are injured
At each location where the gene was activated, the researchers found the enhancer elements.
These elements were then engineered for mice, which turned on the regeneration genes to fix injured paws and hearts.
Dr Poss hopes that one day the elements could also be used in conjunction with genome-editing technologies to boost regeneration in mammals, including humans.
Dr Poss added: “We are just at the beginning of this work, but now we have an encouraging proof of concept that these elements possess all the sequences necessary to work with mammalian machinery after an injury.
“We want to find more of these types of elements so we can understand what turns on and ultimately controls the program of regeneration.”