Not Science Fiction: German Scientists Harness the Power of Photosynthesis for New Way To “Breathe”

The injected green algae (green) sit inside the blood vessels (magenta) like a string of pearls. Credit: Özugur et al./iScience

Photosynthesizing algae injected into the blood vessels of tadpoles supply oxygen to their brains.

Leading a double life in water and on land, frogs have many breathing techniques – through the gills, lungs, and skin – over the course of their lifetime. Now German scientists have developed another method that allows tadpoles to “breathe” by introducing algae into their bloodstream to supply oxygen. The method developed, presented October 13 in the journal iScience, provided enough oxygen to effectively rescue neurons in the brains of oxygen-deprived tadpoles.

“The algae actually produced so much oxygen that they could bring the nerve cells back to life, if you will,” says senior author Hans Straka of Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. “For many people, it sounds like science fiction, but after all, it’s just the right combination of biological schemes and biological principles.”

Straka was studying oxygen consumption in tadpole brains of African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) when a lunch conversation with a botanist sparked an idea to combine plant physiology with neuroscience: harnessing the power of photosynthesis to supply nerve cells with oxygen. The idea didn’t seem far-fetched. In nature, algae live harmoniously in sponges, corals, and anemones, providing them with oxygen and even nutrients. Why not in vertebrates like frogs?


As German researchers inject green algae into a beating tadpole heart, the translucent animal’s veins gradually turn green. Upon illumination, the algae can produce oxygen. Credit: Özugur et al./iScience

To explore the possibility, the team injected green algae (Chlamydomonas renhardtii) or cyanobacteria (Synechocystis) into tadpoles’ hearts. With each heartbeat, the algae inched through blood vessels and eventually reached the brain, turning the translucent tadpole bright green. Shining light on these tadpoles prompted both algae species to pump out oxygen to nearby cells.

After distributing algae to the brain, the researchers isolated the tadpole’s head and placed it in an oxygen bubble bath with essential nutrients that would preserve the functioning of the cells, allowing the team to monitor neural activity and oxygen levels. As the researchers depleted oxygen from the bath, the nerves ceased firing and fell silent. However, illuminating the tadpole head restarted the neural activity within 15 to 20 minutes, which is about two times faster than replenishing the bath with oxygen without the algae. The revived nerves also performed as well or even better than before oxygen depletion, showing that the researchers’ method was quick and efficient.

“We succeeded in showing the proof of principle experiment with this method. It was amazingly reliable and robust, and in my eyes, a beautiful approach,” says Straka. “Working in principle doesn’t really mean that you could apply it at the end, but it’s the first step in order to initiate other studies.”

While the researchers think their findings may someday lead to new therapies for conditions induced by stroke or oxygen-scarce environments, such as underwater and high altitudes, algae are far from ready to enter our blood circulation. The team’s next step is to see whether the injected algae can survive inside living tadpoles and continue oxygen production without causing an immune response that wreaks havoc on the animals.

Straka also envisions his research benefiting other laboratories that work with isolated tissues or organoids. Introducing oxygen-producing algae could help these tissues thrive and raise their survival rates, potentially reducing the need for live animals for experiments.

“You have to have new ideas and new concepts to explore; this is one of the ways science is driven,” says Straka. “If you are open-minded and think it through, all of a sudden, you can see all the possibilities from one idea.”

Reference: “Green oxygen power plants in the brain rescue neuronal activity” by Suzan Özugur, Myra N. Chávez, Rosario Sanchez-Gonzalez, Lars Kunz, Jörg Nickelsen and Hans Straka, 13 October 2021, iScience.
DOI: 10.1016/j.isci.2021.103158

This work was supported by German Science Foundation, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and the Munich Center for Neuroscience.

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  • HenryE

    This seems to be a major advance toward the realization of one of the most horrifying science fiction ideas of all time.

    That of having a living human head in a jar.

  • HenryE

    This seems like a major step toward realizing one of the most horrifying science fiction ideas.

    That of having a living human head in a jar.

  • T S

    Zombie tadpoles coming to a theater near you!

  • Ken Towe

    A first step. But, wherever this is used the appropriate amounts of visible light, CO2 and nutrients will be needed for it to continue. That could be a problem.

  • Ryler

    Did the tadpole survive? Is it now a frog?

  • Octavio

    This is incredible, I hope they continue with the research

  • Vasco

    Amazing! No wonder aliens are green

  • Pearl Smith

    Surface breaking

  • Randy

    Before humans will be wiped out by global warming,the Earth will be oxygen depleted, killing off all aerobic life. Perhaps animal plant hybridization would be an evolutionary step of symbiosis to extend the existence of animal life on Earth.

  • The Pigeon

    I hope this can one day be used towards humans in a way with people with kung disease and lung deficiency. I just hope we don’t turn green

  • bLAdeR-1

    This is nobody remember the old experiment where they kept a dog’s head severed from his body alive breathing panting looking around and aware for like 15 minutes back in the black and white film days so I guess it’s like the 40s or 50s or some sh17. Now that was cutting edge. Pardon the pun

  • Shanna

    I absolutely agree with Randy, he couldn’t have said it any better. This could possibly be an answer to life on our earth in the future to depleted oxygen and brighter hotter sun. Has anybody heard about the organism in the COVID vaccinations?

  • john c skinner

    Space Travel!

  • Jess

    The Earth will not be depleted of O2 for about a Billion years.

    Climate change and Ecological collapse will happen much sooner.

  • Dane Liberatore

    I’m curious as to how this compares to existing symbiodinium function in Cassiopea xamachana?

  • Some guy

    bLAdeR-1 the experiment and film you’re talking about was a film of a third Reich (Nazi) experiment during world war 2. The scientists were actually able to keep the dogs head alive for three days I believe.
    You can find it on YouTube. Just Google severed dogs head Nazi experiment.
    Check out the Russian sleep experiment also, a good one lol

  • Rowan

    Depending on how far this develops and how feasible it is, this could mean the best way to prevent brain-damaging disorders and diseases is to become plant-animal hybrids.

  • Kermit D Frog

    I strongly disagree with the treatment of that tadpole!

  • Go green

    So interesting! Hopefully this could help people with lung disorders, or even covid in the future.

  • M. LAJUMIN

    A fast evolving AI will hopefully soon solve such questions and scientific problems without humans having to resort to experimenting with fellow living creatures. I believe it is already advancing research in Physics .

  • Bill

    I already have all this figured out by experimenting on myself. I’ve found a way to safely fill all my nitrogen receptors and get around the air pollution and all the BS we have done to this planet. The problem is I’m just an ordinary guy that stumbled on something extraordinary and when I talk to people and try to explain it in laymans terms they think I’m crazy. What I’ve found is very real. Just thought I’d throw a line out to see if someone with some pull can help me save us. I’ve saved myself but the chemicals being put in us to control us is making it hard to talk to people whose eyes are sewn shut by society. Anyone who can relate please respond!

  • Chris H.

    How does might this help Alzheimer’s patients?

  • Lonney

    Bill, all I can say is holy shit. I would really like to have a discussion about this. So pls email me at lonneycenterjr@gmail.com. thx

  • Robert M

    Dont believe everything you see just because it comes from a guy in a lab coat. The technology they release to the public is nothing compared to technologies they keep hidden. If they truly wanted to keep us healthy we would be. Wars are funded.hospitals are marketed. Food is poisoned and sold.
    Check here for real news brighteon.com stop believing in the tyranny

  • RPG

    It’s the body’s immune response that will be the problem. It will be difficult, not impossible though, to slip it past our immune system. It would trigger all kinds of responses being algae based organic matter.

  • Kevin Wade

    When you’re ready for human trials, I volunteer. Only to help the scientific community in helping others receive treatment for whatever reason.

  • Craig Hilton

    could it help humans to breath with damaged lungs like illnesses like in Cystic Fibrosis patiants