Maybe they’ll give us all wings after that.

New research describes how scientists have created “mini-antlers” on mice by introducing deer genes into the mouse genome. The findings imply that mammals unable to regenerate organs may retain some regenerative genes in their bodies and that it may be possible to use antlers’ rapid growth for other purposes.

Antlers, one of the fastest-regenerating tissues in the animal kingdom, grow at a rate of 2.75 centimeters (about 1 inch) daily and clearly illustrate how mammals may regularly renew cells. Antlers are particularly fascinating since, as a group, mammals no longer have the ability to regenerate most other tissues and organs. Therefore, a huge appendage that periodically regrows provides unmatched insight into the potential of regenerative medicine for bones.

mouse with antlers

The mini antlers grew rapidly (they didn’t look quite like this, though). Image credit: Ajakor/Irina Kozorog/ Edited by IFLScience


Chinese researcher Toa Qin and colleagues studied the mechanics of the Sika deer’s antlers, which grow yearly before being shed, in the search for regenerative therapies. Through this process, they developed a regenerative “atlas” of Sika deer antlers and isolated several single cells and genes essential for the antler tissue’s growth.

The researchers found one kind of stem cell that was quite active in the regeneration ten days before the antlers were shed, and these cells persisted with the antlers for a brief time after shedding. On day five, a new variety of stem cells appeared after shedding.

Following the discovery of several growth phases, the scientists isolated the stem cells with the highest potential for regeneration (which turned out to be from shed antlers around five days old). They cultured them in a Petri dish before inserting them into the heads of mice.

Due to the stem cells developing into osteochondral tissue essential for bone fracture repair, the mice produced distinctly distinguishable mini-antlers after 45 days. The researchers observed the genetic pathways resulting in the antlers’ rapid elongation, which provided them with information about their potential use in human bone treatment.

mice with antlers

The mice with the “mini-antlers” growing on their heads, from a previous report by one of the study authors. Image credit: Li, Journal of Regenerative Biology and Medicine (2020)

The implantation of cells from different species could pose ethical questions, and extensive safety testing would also need to be done before the treatment could be approved. But mammalian genomes may include comparable genes if the processes underlying regeneration can be discovered.

The findings offer a fresh perspective on how animals can regenerate tissue, using both mechanisms found in our DNA and a little assistance from antler stem cells, even though they can’t quite be directly applied to fixing broken legs.

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