An Australian science project aiming to bring the wonderful gastric-brooding frog back to life, called the Lazarus project, has been named one of the world’s best inventions of this year. The project was included in Time magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of the Year 2013, because it successfully recreated the DNA of the southern gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus). This species and its ‘sister species’ the northern gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus vitellus) are thought to be extinct for nearly three decades now. Which is a great loss to nature and to us: these species can be regarded as one of evolution’s masterpieces, because they were the only animals that used their stomach as a womb and therefore have their eggs develop in their stomach into froglets (see earlier blogpost).
Researchers of the University of Newcastle, Australia were able to use frozen tissue of the gastric-brooding frog, that has been stored for 40 years, to carry out a somatic cell nuclear transplantation. In this process the nuclei of somatic cells (any cell other than a gamete, germ cell, gametocyte or undifferentiated stem cell) of the gastric-brooding frog are transferred into egg cells of the distantly related great barred frog (Mixophyes fasciolatus), after the nuclei of the egg cells have been removed. Although none of these embryos survived past the first few days, the researchers did find the DNA of the extinct species in the embryos, meaning the nucleus transplantation had been successful.
One of the researchers involved in the Lazarus project, frog expert Michael Mahoney, described the technology, in an interview with ABC Radio, as an ‘ insurance policy’ against extinction. He added: “ We need to have some process by which we can prevent extinction”. For the scientists it is not merely about the feat of bringing back a species from the dead, but rather about developing a technology that can be used to battle the biodiversity crisis. It could mean that extinct species are not lost forever and biodiversity can be restored. As I mentioned before, research has shown biodiversity to be invaluable and inextricably linked to our well-being.
In an earlier interview that National Geographic had with the lead scientist of the project, Mike Archer he explains his own motivation for the project: “If we were responsible for the extinction of the species, deliberately or inadvertently, we have a moral responsibility or imperative to undo that if we can”. And with species disappearing at an unprecedented rate he draws the necessity of his work in a broader perspective: “This work will be relevant to the rest of the frogs around the world and possibly to animals of all kinds”. For these reasons he keeps on going through with the project, even though they are still a long away from actually resurrecting a live individual. Furthermore, the habitat of the gastric-brooding frog is threatened by habitat modification and pollution, so there might not even be suitable living space for it in the wild. And although some people argue that this technology costs a lot of money, that might be better spent on conservation of species that are still around, he believes that we should explore all options to preserve biodiversity: “No matter how many resources we put into looking after the environment, wildlife is no longer safe in the wild,” he says. “If we accept that maintaining biodiversity is important, we can’t assume that if you whack a fence up, everything’s going to be okay. You need to explore lots of parallel strategies.”
The very interesting article in National Geographic can be read here