Scientists clone extinct frog embryo

Could the woolly mammoth be next?

Mike Tyler

Mike Tyler

From my column at Communities @ Washington Times

WASHINGTON DC, March 18, 2013- Researchers from the Lazarus Project are on their way to bringing back an extinct frog species to life.  Led by paleontologist Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales, scientists successfully created early-stage embryos of the extinct gastric brooding frog.

The gastric brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus), also known as the platypus frog, was discovered in the early 1970s.  Native to the rainforests and creeks of Queensland, Australia, this frog had a very particular way of reproducing.  The female swallowed eggs fertilized by the male, incubated the tadpoles in its stomach, and gave birth to small frogs through its mouth.  While the eggs were incubating (about six weeks), the frog would not eat and its stomach would cease to produce gastric juices.

Scientists are unsure what led to its extinction, but it is believed to be a combination of habitat loss and degradation, pollution, and disease.  The gastric brooding frog was officially declared extinct in 1983.  Until now.

In an announcement last Friday, Lazarous project scientists revealed that they had successfully used somatic cell nuclear transfer to create gastric brooding frog embryos.  Scientists inserted the extinct frog’s DNA into donor eggs from the great barred frog, a species related to the gastric brooding frog.  The donor eggs were treated with UV light to deactivate the great barred frog DNA, preventing it from interfering with the inserted gastric brooding frog’s genetic material.

The extinct frog’s DNA was obtained from frog samples frozen by Adelaide Professor Mike Tyler before the frog became extinct, and stored in a University deep freezer for over 30 years.  Even though the embryos lived for a few days and did not develop into tadpoles, researchers are optimistic. Tests of the embryos confirmed that the DNA was that of the extinct gastric brooding frog.

The breakthrough was announced Friday in Washington, DC at the TEDx DeExtinction event hosted by Revive & Restore, with the support of TED, in partnership with the National Geographic Society.  The event centered on discussions about the practical, moral, and ethical questions that arise from bringing extinct species back to life.

As discussed at Friday’s event, there are many questions involved in attempting to bring back an extinct species.  For one thing, are these scientists bringing back an extinct species, or creating a new one that looks like the extinct species?  Other questions include how to introduce genetic variation, whether species should be brought back for research of repopulation, what the challenges of reintroduction are, and perhaps on a more fundamental plane, why bring back a species in the first place.

Lazarus Project scientists anticipate their research can be used to conserve other endangered species.  Other researchers have already expressed uses for this kind of technology beyond conservation.  For example, biologists have expressed an interest in studying the way the frogs stop producing digestive juices in the hope of developing medical treatments for people suffering from gastric disorders.

This kind of science poses all kinds of questions on several levels, many of which cannot be answered at the moment.  Some think that in a way it is like playing God.

The Lazarus project has announced that it plans to focus on cloning the extinct Tasmanian tiger next.  Meanwhile others are already clamoring to bring back the dodo bird and the woolly mammoth.