Can frogs save us from chemicals?

Posted on Monday, April 8, 2019

Waterlilly floating in a pond

Can frog embryos help us protect the environment?

Discovering the little-known effects chemicals released in our lakes and rivers might have on the surrounding wildlife and ecosystems can give scientists and conservationists powerful insight into the development of better, more efficient environmental guidelines.

New research led by biology professor Vance L. Trudeau at the University of Ottawa may help do just that, especially when it comes to naphthenic acids, a complex mixture of water-soluble chemicals that come from petroleum. These chemicals are toxic to frog embryos, and the developmental abnormalities they cause can be severe.

Juan Manuel Gutierrez-Villagomez, who completed his PhD under Trudeau’s supervision, came to this conclusion by finding lower survival — and higher developmental deformity — rates in frog embryos exposed to various naphthenic acids solutions.

“Just like humans, frogs are four-limbed animals, so the same body processes that control development in frogs also control fetal development in humans,” Trudeau points out. “What we find in one species, therefore, can help us to predict what could potentially happen in other species. It can also help us ascertain what kind of impact these chemicals might have on populations and communities who depend on rivers for food.”

While naphthenic acids are found in moderate to high concentrations in the water in the tailing ponds of Alberta’s oil sands, lower levels can also be found elsewhere. Indeed, naphthenic acids are used commercially in a wide range of products such as paint driers, wood and fabric preservatives, and fuel additives.

“Spring is upon us,” Trudeau added. “So, like many people in our community, I am especially concerned about frogs, fish and the environment we live in.”

Professor Trudeau’s research could help determine the effects these chemicals may have on aquatic life and on ecosystem health as a whole.


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