How Frogs Adapt to the Cold at High Altitudes

Jim Crocker
13th April, 2024

How Frogs Adapt to the Cold at High Altitudes

Image Source: Jonas Thomann (photographer)

Key Findings

  • Scientists at Lanzhou University studied how the plateau brown frog survives extreme cold on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau
  • They found specific genes that help the frog tolerate freezing by producing protective proteins and managing metabolism
  • This research could lead to advances in agriculture and medical science, such as improving crop cold tolerance and organ preservation
Understanding how organisms survive in extreme cold is a puzzle that scientists at Lanzhou University[1] are piecing together. Their latest research shines a light on the genetic secrets behind the survival of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau's amphibian, Rana kukunoris, commonly known as the plateau brown frog. This study is pivotal because it delves into the genetic mechanisms that allow these frogs to endure the harsh winters where temperatures can plummet far below freezing. Rana kukunoris has developed a remarkable ability to tolerate freezing, a trait that is critical for enduring the winter months on the plateau. The study from Lanzhou University has discovered specific genes that are switched on or off in response to cold conditions, which enable the frogs to survive periods of freezing. This process, known as gene regulation, is crucial for the frogs' ability to cope with the formation of ice within their bodies. Previous research has shown that cold-tolerant organisms, like some amphibians, insects, and plants, produce proteins that bind to ice, preventing it from growing and causing damage[2]. These proteins, known as ice-binding proteins (IBPs), include antifreeze proteins (AFPs), which help organisms avoid freezing, and ice-nucleating proteins (INPs), which control the formation of ice in a way that the organism can survive[2]. The study from Lanzhou University builds on this knowledge by identifying the genes that are responsible for producing these proteins in Rana kukunoris. The frogs' ability to survive the freezing of their body water is a complex trait that involves a suite of molecular and biochemical responses[3]. These responses help prevent cell death from dehydration, damage to cell structures, and oxidative stress. The newly identified genes regulate the production of cryoprotectants—substances like glucose and glycerol that protect cells from damage during freezing[4]. Additionally, these genes are involved in controlling the transport of these cryoprotectants across cell membranes, and in managing the metabolic changes that occur during freezing. One of the key findings of the Lanzhou University study is the role of gene regulation in managing the frogs' metabolism during freezing. The frogs enter a state of hypometabolism, where their metabolic rate is significantly reduced. This state is regulated by a complex network that includes reversible phosphorylation of metabolic enzymes, microRNA control of gene expression, and the regulation of the cell cycle[3]. By slowing down their metabolism, the frogs use much less energy, which is vital for survival when they cannot feed and their bodies are immobilized by ice. Further expanding on previous studies, the research also highlights the importance of membrane transporters for water and cryoprotectants, as well as chaperone proteins that help maintain the proper folding and function of other proteins during the stress of freezing[5]. These findings suggest that the plateau brown frog has a finely tuned system for managing the entry and distribution of protective substances in the body to combat the stresses of freezing. This research not only provides insight into how Rana kukunoris survives the extreme cold but also adds to the broader understanding of freeze tolerance in ectothermic vertebrates. It ties together previous findings on the role of IBPs, cryoprotectants, and metabolic regulation in cold tolerance and expands them by pinpointing the genetic switches involved in these processes[2][3][4][5]. The implications of this study are far-reaching. Understanding the genetic basis of freeze tolerance could have applications in agriculture, where crop species might be genetically engineered for better cold survival. It could also inform medical science, particularly in the areas of organ preservation and hypothermia treatment, where controlling ice formation and metabolic rates is crucial. In summary, the research from Lanzhou University has taken a significant step forward in elucidating the genetic underpinnings of freeze tolerance in Rana kukunoris. By identifying the genes that regulate this amphibian's ability to survive the frozen winter of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, the study not only advances our understanding of amphibian biology but also opens up new avenues for applying this knowledge in practical ways to benefit other fields of science and industry.

GeneticsEcologyAnimal Science


Main Study

1) Comparative transcriptomic analysis delineates adaptation strategies of Rana kukunoris toward cold stress on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau

Published 12th April, 2024

Related Studies

2) Animal ice-binding (antifreeze) proteins and glycolipids: an overview with emphasis on physiological function.

3) Molecular biology of freezing tolerance.

4) Molecular Physiology of Freeze Tolerance in Vertebrates.

5) Avoidance and tolerance of freezing in ectothermic vertebrates.

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