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Science in Mind

Tadpoles see with eyes on tails in Tufts experiment

A blind tadpole has an eye on its tail that was transplanted by Tufts University biologists. The eye became a source of vision by sending signals to the brain through the spinal cord.

Douglas Blackiston and Michael Levin

A blind tadpole has an eye on its tail that was transplanted by Tufts University biologists. The eye became a source of vision by sending signals to the brain through the spinal cord.

It sounds, at first, like a plot twist from a zany movie about a mad scientist: What if an eye were transplanted onto a tadpole’s tail? Would the frog in the making be merely a laboratory freak — kind of a Mr. Potato Head of science? Or would the tadpole be able to see out of its backside?

Now, a pair of serious Tufts University biologists have carefully done the experiment, demonstrating for the first time that a blind tadpole can see with an eye bulging from its tail.

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Researchers showed the eye can detect changes in colored light and guide the tadpole’s behavior, even though the nerves from its eye connect only to the spinal cord. Remarkably, that means signals sent from the displaced eye through the central nervous system were correctly interpreted by the brain.

The research, led by a Tufts biologist who is known for approaching big questions in biology from unexpected angles, probes an important and very real question confronting scientists in fields that range from regenerative medicine to robotics: If you create a new sensor, whether it’s a replacement eye or a new camera, how do you integrate that with an organism’s (or robot’s) abilities?

“What we’re fundamentally interested in is how the brain-body interface works when the body architecture is changed,” said Michael Levin, the Tufts biologist who led the work, published Wednesday in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

To do the study, researchers transplanted a developing eye from one tadpole embryo onto the backside of another tadpole embryo. They did this 230 times, and in almost all cases, the eyes grew to about the same size and shape along the tadpoles’ tails. All of them faced outward, like normal eyes. Nerve cells sprouted from the eyes in about half of the tadpoles. In some, these nerves tapped into the spinal cord. The scientists removed the tadpoles’ regular eyes, leaving them blind.

They then exposed these tadpoles, as well as normal ones, to red or blue light, giving them a shock when they were in areas of red light. Normal tadpoles learned to avoid the red light. Blind tadpoles did not learn to avoid the shocks, presumably because they could not detect the different light colors. But a fifth of the blinded tadpoles who had been given an eye on their tail that connected to the spinal cord avoided the shocks.

“I really like this approach, and not just because it’s different or exotic,” said Günther K.H. Zupanc, a biology professor at Northeastern University who was not involved in the research.

Understanding how the auxiliary eye becomes a source of vision in a frog could help guide scientists who want to build prosthetics.

As the experiment progressed, however, the researchers began to ponder a more lighthearted question. What would happen to the eye when the tadpole turned into a frog?

The answer can be seen in Levin’s lab: “Do we have frogs with eyes on their butts in the lab?” Levin said. “We most certainly do.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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