Kenneth D. Poss, Ph.D. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Professor, Cell Biology

Early Career Scientist, Howard Hughes Medical Institute


349 Nanaline Duke Building, Box 3709
Duke University Medical Center
Durham, NC 27710

Telephone 919-681-8457
Fax 919-684-5481

Lab Site

Regeneration in the zebrafish model system
Mammalian tissues achieve remarkable feats of regeneration. After removal of more than two-thirds of its mass, the liver rapidly regenerates within several days by hepatocyte proliferation. Multipotent hematopoietic stem cells replenish red and white blood cells, and skin, muscle, and intestine are repaired by tissue-specific stem cells. However, this regenerative capacity is distributed unequally among mammalian organs: limbs, brain, spinal cord, and heart display minimal regeneration after tissue damage or loss. How and why tissue regeneration does (or does not) occur are critical questions; the answers have the potential to impact the clinical outcomes of the many diseases of organ damage, including heart failure, Alzheimer's disease, and diabetes.

   It has been known for centuries that certain non-mammalian vertebrates, such as urodele amphibians and teleost fish, regenerate complex tissues much more effectively than mammals. Salamanders have long been the central characters employed in vertebrate regeneration studies. Two features make the teleost zebrafish a powerful, complementary model system to study organ regeneration. First, they are highly regenerative, equipped to regrow amputated fins, injured retinae, transected optic nerves and spinal cord, and resected heart muscle. Second, unlike salamanders, they are amenable to both forward and reverse genetic approaches. As is customary with genetic model systems, a wide array of community resources is available for gene discovery and molecular characterization in zebrafish, including mutagenesis screens, transgenesis, microarrays, developmental markers, and genome sequence information.

   The Poss lab is investigating the biology of spectacular regenerative events in zebrafish to discover new cellular mechanisms, and we are also developing new tools to interrogate regeneration deeply at the molecular level. Over the next several years, we will pursue fundamental aspects of organ regeneration—most importantly, how tissue renewal is stimulated by injury, and how newly created cells recognize position and functionally incorporate into existing tissue.

Heart regeneration
There is little natural regeneration of the major structural cells of the adult mammalian heart, the cardiomyocytes, after injury. This regenerative deficiency is highly relevant to human disease, given the high prevalence in the United States of ischemic myocardial infarction and scarring, a major cause of heart failure. Several years ago, we discovered tthat that adult zebrafish regenerate cardiac muscle after removal of 20 percent of the ventricle, with little or no scarring. How are new cardiac cells created and functionally integrated into an injured, contracting, adult heart? How and why do zebrafish retain regenerative capacity of the heart as adults, while mammals lose such capacity very early in life? Our research program addresses these and other important questions.

   It has been a primary goal of our work to define the origin and developmental potential of cellular contributors to regenerated cardiac tissue. We showed recently that cardiac regeneration is not based on stem cells, but rather involves activation and proliferation of spared cardiac myocytes. It is important now to understand at high spatiotemporal resolution how this regenerative source becomes activated by injury.

   We also demonstrated new biological relevance for the epicardium, a thin epithelial layer envelopingthe cardiac chambers, and the inner endothelial lining of the chambers called the endocardium. We have found that the adult zebrafish endocardium and epicardium respond rapidly and robustly to injury, and are important for regenerative cardiomyocyte proliferation and neovascularization, respectively. We are exploring several fascinating questions regarding how the non-muscle cells that comprise the cardiac environment respond to injury and facilitate regeneration.

   These avenues should yield clues to altering the regenerative capacity of the injured mammalian heart. The idea of cardiac regenerative therapy for the mammalian heart seems more attainable than ever due to exciting progress in the field in 2012.

Fin regeneration
Zebrafish fins are transparent, highly organized structures, making them a very tractable system for asking fundamental questions about complex tissue regeneration. Within two weeks after amputation of the caudal fin, a series of healing, proliferation, and patterning events replaces bone, epidermis, blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue mesenchyme. A hallmark of limb or fin regeneration is formation of the blastema, a proliferative mass of mesenchymal cells that is maintained as a zone of progenitor tissue for new structures. The central questions are these: (1) What cells give rise to the blastema, and how is its formation activated by injury? (2) How is blastemal activity maintained appropriately throughout regeneration? (3) How is the completion of regeneration remembered and enacted? We are using forward and reverse genetic approaches to identify new regulatory mechanisms critical for appendage regeneration in zebrafish.

Recent Publications:

Kang, J., Nachtrab, G., and Poss, K. D.  (2013)  Local Dkk1 crosstalk from breeding ornaments impedes regeneration of injured male zebrafish fins.  Dev Cell 27:19-31

Wang J, Karra R, Dickson AL, Poss KD  (2013)  Fibronectin is deposited by injury-activated epicardial cells and is necessary for zebrafish heart regeneration.  Dev Biol.  382(2):427-435

Johnson AN, Mokalled MH, Valera JM, Poss KD, Olson EN  (2013)  Post-transcriptional regulation of myotube elongation and myogenesis by Hoi Polloi.  Development.  140(17)3645-56

Gemberling M, Bailey TJ, Hyde DR, Poss KD (2013)  The zebrafish as a model for complex tissue regeneration.  Trends Genet.  S0168-9525(13)00113-3

Nachtrab G, Kikuchi K, Tornini VA, Poss KD (2013)  Transcriptional components of anteroposterior positional information during zebrafish fin regeneration.  Development.  140(18):3754-64

Fang Y, Gupta V, Karra R, Holdway JE, Kikuchi K, Poss KD  (2013)  Translational profiling of cardiomyocytes identifies an early Jak1/Stat3 injury reponse required for zebrafish heart regeneration.  Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 110(33):13416-21

Gupta V, Gemberling M, Karra R, Rosenfeld GE, Evans T, Poss KD (2013)  An injury-responsive gata4 program shapes the zebrafish cardiac ventricle.  Curr Biol 23(13):1221-7

Le X, Pugach EK, Hettmer S, Storer NY, Liu J, Wills AA, DiBiase A, Chen EY, Ignatius MS, Poss KD, Wagers AJ, Langenau DM, Zon LI (2013)  A novel chemical screening strategy in zebrafish identifies common pathways in embryogenesis and rhabdomyosarcoma development.  Development.  140(11):2354-64

Guner-Ataman B, Paffett-Lugassy N, Adams MS, Nevis KR, Jahangiri L, Obregon P, Kikuchi K, Poss KD, Burns CE, Burns CG  (2013)  Zebrafish second heart field development relies on progenitor specification in anterior lateral plate mesoderm and nkx2.5 function.  Development.  140(3):660-6

Choi W.Y., Gemberling M., Wang J., Holdway J.E., Shen M.C., Karlstrom R.O., and Poss, K.D. (2013). In vivo monitoring of cardiomyocyte proliferation to identify chemical modifiers of heart regeneration. Development 140, 660-666.

Kikuchi, K and Poss, K.D. (2012). Cardiac regenerative capacity and mechanisms. Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology 28, 719-741.


Click here for a full list of Publications.