In a stunning new experiment, a group of German scientists managed to keep tadpoles alive without the help of breathing! Yes, it actually happened. The researchers say the novel technique has the potential to save the lives of stroke patients when oxygen to their brains is cut off.
The breakthrough experiment happened when neurobiologists at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich were investigating oxygen consumption in the brains of African clawed frog tadpoles (Xenopus laevis). After a suggestion from a botanist colleague, the scientist deliberated the idea of employing the power of photosynthesis to supply oxygen to the animal's brains. Incredibly, it worked! And with that, they have opened a whole new set of possibilities for science.
What was the experiment about?
You may be aware that frogs lead a double life - one in the water and another one on land - meaning that they use many breathing techniques to survive. Frogs use gills, lungs, and even their skin to breathe. The biologists at Ludwig-Maximilians-University wanted to see if they could develop a new way for tadpoles to “breathe.”
For this, the scientists first injected green, single-celled algae (Chlamydomonas Reinhardt) or cyanobacteria (Synechocystis) into the hearts of Xenopus laevis tadpoles. The idea wasn’t far-fetched because, in nature, algae live peacefully in sponges, corals, and anemones, supplying them with oxygen and even nutrients. Can they do the same to frogs?
The researchers found that, with each heartbeat, the algae moved through the blood vessels to the brain, eventually turning the translucent tadpole bright green. More surprisingly, the algal species began to produce oxygen in substantial quantities.
Watch the video of the breakthrough experiment below:
The team then shined a light on the tadpoles, persuading the algae to crank out oxygen to the nearby cells. This is similar to the process of photosynthesis that allows green plants and some other organisms to transform light energy into chemical energy.
“The algae produced so much oxygen that they could bring the nerve cells back to life if you like,” said senior author Hans Straka of Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich in a statement. “To many people, it sounds like science fiction, but after all, it’s just the right combination of biological schemes and biological principles.”
To further test their experiment, the team injected strains of algae into another group of tadpoles. These algae were not engineered to increase oxygen concentration. When the tadpoles were deficient in oxygen, their neural activity decreased and ultimately came to a complete stop. But when the scientists inserted the tadpoles with the mutated algae and shined a light on them, the neural activity restarted within 15 to 20 minutes.
This isn’t all. According to the research team, the revived nerves of this group of tailed amphibians also performed as well and even better than before oxygen was depleted. This showed that the method used by the neurobiologists was quick and efficient.
How can this new experiment help science?
The researchers think that their findings might someday lead to new therapies for conditions caused by stroke or oxygen-scarce environments like high altitudes and underwater. However, they also note that algae are not exactly ready to enter the blood circulation of human bodies, at least not at present.
The team will now see if the injected algae can survive inside live tadpoles and continue oxygen production without stirring an immune response that kills the animals.
They also believe that their new research would be beneficial to other labs working with isolated tissues or organoids. That’s because bringing in oxygen-producing algae could allow these tissues to flourish and enhance their survival rates. This could then possibly reduce the requirement for live animals for experiments.
More research would, of course, be needed before we can think of reaching that point. But this is an exciting start. And science is all about exploring new possibilities and new concepts…
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