Jurassic Frog: Controversial ‘de-extincting’ program raises hopes and fears

Gastric Brooding Frog. Artwork credit: Peter Schouten
The gastric brooding frog.
Credit: Peter Schouten

As the only animal to give birth through its mouth, the gastric-brooding frog fascinated scientists — until it became extinct in 1983. But this unique beast could live again thanks to a cloning breakthrough and become the first “de-extinct” species since a Pyrenean ibex survived for seven minutes in 2009.

New technology has allowed the Australian Lazarus Project to insert the frog’s genome — its complete DNA — into a similar species. The process, announced at the TEDx DeExtinction conference, is expected to produce the living animal within a few years, the project’s creators claim. “I’m sure we can get to that stage, and it will be exactly the same as the extinct frog,” Lazarus scientist Dr. Michael Mahony told Metro.

The team will produce several of the species, and claim the same technology could work for any organism – they are also working to revive the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. Lazarus’ work is supported by de-extinctionist group Revive and Restore, which curated the TEDx conference, and intends to “de-extinct” 24 species ranging from plants to mammoths.

The plans have been controversial. “De-extinction supporters claim a moral imperative to restore species, but in many cases there is no place for them as their habitats have disappeared,” said National Geographic science writer Brian Switek. “They would be doomed again.”

Conservationists worry about the message. “It’s exciting but such efforts may lead to a false sense of security,” said Carly Waterman, director of Edge, an endangered species project run by the Zoological Society for London. “I would prefer to focus on species before they reach that stage.”

In a “Jurassic Park” scenario, restoring animals could put humans at risk. “It’s totally unpredictable,” said Natural History Museum extinction specialist Roberto Miguez. “The reason Tasmanian tigers became extinct is they were perceived as a threat to farmers.”

But he added: “I would be at the front of the queue to see one.”

Back from the dead

If Revive and Restore succeeds, expect to share space with these creatures:

  • Smilodon – Better known as the saber-tooth cat, believed to have hunted mammoths 10,000 years ago.
  • Woolly mammoth – Larger cousin of the elephant and already the subject of a Russian/South Korean cloning effort.
  • Dodo – Flightless bird that was reportedly made extinct in the 17th century.
  • Yangtze River dolphin – The last one died in 2002, attributed to toxic pollution in its habitat.
  • Passenger pigeon – Once the most common bird in the world, and is high on the list for restoration.

Expert Q+A with Dr. Michael Mahony, Lazarus Project and Newcastle University frog specialist

Metro: How close are you to making this happen?

Mahony: It’s a physical barrier not a genetic one, there’s no mismatch between the species. It’s just to do with the cell capacities — we’ll get there.

Will it be a hybrid with the host frog?

The nucleus cells all come from the extinct species so we would expect it to be exactly the same.

Could you do this on a grander scale?

Once we overcome this barrier there is unlimited capacity – we could do 1,000. In principle you can do it with any species if you have the DNA.

How significant is this for the history of cloning?

The cross-species part is unique for dead cells — we think it’s a very significant contribution.


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