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Cardiology Research Groups

Mommersteeg Group

Research Aims & Objectives

Heart regeneration and development

  • We use the Mexican cavefish as a unique model to understand the molecular and cellular pathways underlying heart regeneration
  • Findings from the cavefish model are tested using zebrafish and mouse models 

Details of research interests

Complete regeneration of the adult heart after injury is a feature exclusive to a limited number of species, including fish and salamanders. Injury to a fish heart can result in a spectacular scar-free regeneration process, with the wound tissue completely being replaced with new, functional cardiac muscle. In contrast, in patients fortunate enough to survive a heart attack (myocardial infarction), the dead heart muscle is replaced by a permanent scar that will never be replaced by new heart muscle, and may in the long term result in heart failure. Understanding the mechanisms by which natural heart regeneration occurs in fish will provide insights into regenerative failure in humans and the possible therapies.

We have discovered a new, unique fish model for heart regeneration research, the Mexican cavefish. Astyanax mexicanus is a single fish species comprising cave-dwelling and surface populations. Around 10.000-8 million years ago, the surface fish, living in rivers in northern Mexico, diverged into distinct cavefish populations. During rainy season fish from the rivers flooded into the caves. While some caves continue to be flooded every year, other caves became geographically separated from the river over time as river water levels retreated. The surface fish in these caves adapted to cave life and evolved to become cavefish. During their evolution in the caves, the fish lost their eyes and pigment, redundant in the absence of light. Instead, they developed highly sensitive taste buds and vibration-sensitive lateral line systems specialised in finding food in the dark. We found that the river surface fish regenerate their heart completely, while, cavefish cannot and form a permanent fibrotic scar. Astyanax mexicanus provides the distinctive advantage to be able to directly compare a natural regenerative and scarring response within one species, without having to correct for inter-species differences. The advantages extent even further when taking into account the unique experiments that are possible when comparing the Mexican cavefish with its surface fish counterpart, including Quantitative Trait Loci analysis.

We use Astyanax mexicanus for the discovery of novel mechanism, which we take forward to both the zebrafish and mouse models to look for conservation and for the wide availability of mutants and transgenics. We also look at processes during heart development to better help us understand heart regeneration. Techniques in our lab range from RNAscope on sections to QTL analysis and single cell sequencing. 

Group Leader

Mathilda T.M. Mommersteeg

Group Members

Post-doctoral researchers:

  • Dr Rita Alonaizan
  • Dr Gennaro Ruggiero

PhD Students:

  • Esra Sengul
  • Helen Potts


Collaborators - Oxford:


  • British Heart Foundation
  • Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative
  • European Research Council

Public Engagement

Our group is very active and committed to increase public understanding of science. Each year we participate in science fairs, such as the Ideas Festival in Oxford, together with the Srinivas group. We have a well visited stall focusing on embryo development in different species, from fish to chick and mouse. We also do school visits/open days and public lectures, for example at Pint of Science and give interviews about our work, for example on the Today program on BBC radio 4. You can find us on Twitter using @MommersteegLab and @tmommersteeg

Recent Publications

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