What if woolly mammoths once again roamed Earth? It may not be so far-fetched. Last year, an Australian team of scientists took a big step toward resurrecting a long-gone species. Using cloning technology, their “Lazarus Project” created an embryo of the extinct gastric-brooding frog.
With more-than-30-year-old frozen tissues from a preserved frog, the team extracted and implanted the nucleus of a dead cell into a fresh host egg from a distantly related species. The result: “It’s not a tadpole, it’s not a frog, but it’s a long way toward bringing it back,” says Mike Archer, a professor of biology at the University of New South Wales, who led the research.
The original frog, which disappeared in 1983, was a genuine freak of nature. Mothers swallowed their eggs, transformed their stomachs into wombs, then coughed up fully formed babies.
Archer’s new embryo lived only a few days, but made it longer than other embryos, developing the precursor to a spine and brain. He is confident the hurdles are technological, not biological, and believes he will soon figure out how to keep the creature alive into adulthood.
Nonetheless, some prominent biologists question whether “de-extincting” species is a smart conservation strategy — or if it merely distracts from protecting the thousands of species at risk today. Says Duke University conservation ecologist Stuart Pimm: “I think it is at best a colossal waste of money and at worst has potential to do significant harm.”
[This article originally appeared in print as "Coughing Up an Extinct Frog."]