BAR HARBOR, Maine — Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory has plans to expand its research into how some animals can regenerate limbs, and is expected to receive $1.6 million from the Department of Defense to fund its efforts.

Finding out why adults of some vertebrate species can regrow limbs might lead to scientific breakthroughs that one day could enable humans to regrow limbs, according to MDI Bio Lab officials. The Defense Department is interested in funding such research because of the relatively significant number of people in military service who lose limbs through the course of their duties, they said Tuesday.

“We have 2 million Americans that suffer from loss of limbs, including 15,000 service people,” said Dr. Randall Dahn, an evolutionary developmental biologist at the lab. By studying how salamanders, skates and other species of fish can regenerate limbs, he said, “we kind of get a snapshot of how these limbs evolve.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted the research and Defense Department money when she visited the lab Tuesday and met with lab officials. During her brief visit, Collins spoke with some researchers about their projects.

Dahn told Collins that the skate, the biology of which has remained essentially unchanged for 150 million years, shares about 95 percent of its genes with humans. Learning how some vertebrates regrow limbs could aid research into how to regrow organs such as kidneys, which Collins noted could affect how some diseases are treated.

“This has implications for diabetes, too,” Collins said. “That would be incredible.”

Jerilyn Bowers, the lab‘s spokeswoman, said Collins worked with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and 2nd Congressional District Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, in securing the appropriation in the defense budget. She said the lab still has to apply formally for the money but the funding is likely to come through this fall.

The lab also has its eye on another possible $2.2 million in Defense Department funding for limb regeneration research, Bowers said, and may end up applying for that money as well.

Lab officials said such research is expected to become one of the lab’s main areas of scientific focus. Kevin Strange, the lab’s director, said the lab is interviewing a handful of candidates for a new regenerative research position — or possibly two — that would be funded by the Defense Department grant.

“It’s going to be the new cornerstone of the lab,” Strange told Collins.

According to Bowers, the Defense Department money could end up acting as seed money that leads to even greater funding for the lab from the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency that is a primary source of funding for the lab’s research.

“What Randy [Dahn] is doing is really novel,” Bowers said of Dahn’s research. The defense funding “will also allow us to recruit” new scientists, she added.

Bowers noted that the defense funding is separate from $3.86 million the lab is getting from the 2009 stimulus package. That money, from the National Institutes of Health, is going to fund construction of a 10,000-square-foot laboratory building, she said.

The new lab building will replace a seasonal laboratory building that was constructed in 1971, before the lab had any year-round researchers. It is expected to be built to U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, as was a larger research building that opened at the lab in 2008.

Since 1999, the number of year-round employees at MDI Bio Lab has increased from nine to 45, according to lab officials. Construction of the new building, which is expected to be done by Nickerson & O’Day of Brewer, is expected to create 25 construction jobs for the duration of the building project, Bowers said Tuesday.

Work on the new building is expected to get under way this fall and to be completed by fall 2011.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....