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A planarian is one of the many flatworms of the traditional class Turbellaria. It usually describes free-living flatworms of the order Tricladida (triclads), although this common name is also used for a wide number of free-living platyhelminthes. Planaria are common to many parts of the world, living in both saltwater and freshwater ponds and rivers. Some species are terrestrial and are found under logs, in or on the soil, and on plants in humid areas.
|Dugesia subtentaculata, a dugesiid.|
The triclads are characterized by triply branched intestine and anteriorly situated ovaries next to the brain. Today, the order Tricladida is split into three suborders, according to their phylogenetic relationships: Maricola, Cavernicola and Continenticola. Formerly, the Tricladida was split according to habitats: Maricola, which is marine; Paludicola which inhabits freshwater; and Terricola, which is land-dwelling.
Planaria exhibit an extraordinary ability to regenerate lost body parts. For example, a planarian split lengthwise or crosswise will regenerate into two separate individuals. Some planarian species have two eye-spots (also known as ocelli) that can detect the intensity of light, while others have several eye-spots. The eye-spots act as photoreceptors and are used to move away from light sources. Planaria have three germ layers (ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm), and are acoelomate (they have a very solid body with no body cavity). They have a single-opening digestive tract; in Tricladida planarians this consists of one anterior branch and two posterior branches.
Planarians move by beating cilia on the ventral dermis, allowing them to glide along on a film of mucus. Some also can move by undulations of the whole body by the contractions of muscles built into the body membrane.
The most frequently used planarian in high school and first-year college laboratories is the brownish Girardia tigrina. Other common species used are the blackish Planaria maculata and Girardia dorotocephala. Recently, however, the species Schmidtea mediterranea has emerged as the species of choice for modern molecular biological and genomic research due to its diploid chromosomes and the existence of both asexual and sexual strains. Recent genetic screens utilizing double-stranded RNA technology have uncovered 240 genes that affect regeneration in S. mediterranea. Many of these genes have orthologs in the human genome.