Like many lizards, geckos can detach their tail in order to evade a predator, then regrow it complete with the spinal cord. In fact, they can regrow it faster than any other lizard – within just 30 days. Now, a scientist from Canada's University of Guelph has discovered how they go about doing it. His findings could lead to improved treatment of spinal cord injuries in humans.

By studying geckos in the lab, Prof. Matthew Vickaryous found that their spinal cord contains a special type of stem cell known as the radial glia. Ordinarily, these stay relatively inactive. When the tail is severed, however, they spring into action.

"The cells make different proteins and begin proliferating more in response to the injury," he says. "Ultimately, they make a brand new spinal cord. Once the injury is healed and the spinal cord is restored, the cells return to a resting state."

Lacking those cells, humans simply produce scar tissue when they experience a spinal cord injury. It seals the wound quickly, but prevents regeneration.

"We knew the gecko's spinal cord could regenerate, but we didn't know which cells were playing a key role," says Vickaryous. "Humans are notoriously bad at dealing with spinal cord injuries so I'm hoping we can use what we learn from geckos to coax human spinal cord injuries into repairing themselves."