The British explorer Samuel Hearne, while trekking across the Canadian Arctic in the late 1800’s, was amazed to find frozen, lifeless frogs folded under the snow and leaf litter. “Their legs are as easily broken off as a pipe-stem,” wrote Hearne, who was apparently a malevolent 6-year old. “But by wrapping them up in warm skins, and exposing them to a slow fire, they soon recover life.” He had discovered the amazing cryonic frog.
The wood frog of North America lives in the Northeastern United States, Canada, and almost all of Alaska. It breeds in vernal pools, those ephemeral forest ponds filled with spring snowmelt, where its young tadpoles are free from predation by fish. They have superb camouflage for blending in with the leaf litter on the forest floor, and are even capable of morphing their color, lighter or darker, to disappear into any shade of loam. (I might add, having listened to their peeping in the vernal pools of Massachusetts, that they are to April what crickets are to July, the sopranos of the season.)
But by far the most extraordinary thing about the wood frog is its ability to freeze itself and remain alive, which has given it the ability to go where no amphibian has gone before. The first frost sets off a remarkable chain reaction in the frog’s body; at a mere touch of ice, the frog allows its skin cells to freeze over. By the time the transformation is through, the frogsicle has no heartbeat, no brain activity, no breath. Technically, it is dead. It can stay a lifeless corpse all winter, and as long as no more than 65% of its body is frozen, it will thaw itself out in the spring, kickstart its brain and heart, and within a few hours, get down to the business of shagging other little wood frogs in the vernal pools. What’s more, this miraculous resurrection is done without the aid of any coffee whatsoever.
If you want to visit Ted Williams’ corpse, you need to go to the Alcor Life Extension Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. If you seduce/knock out the right guards, take their clearance badges and maybe an eyeball for retinal scans, and head to the sub-basement while the alarms go off in the hallways, you will find a series of stainless steel canisters, one of which contains the baseball legend, frozen in liquid nitrogen at -321 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, suppose you’ve battened down the doors, taken a few of the guys in lab coats hostage, and forced the whimpering eggheads to thaw out Ted Williams’ corpse so he can autograph your baseball. Well, guess what? Ted Williams is done signing autographs. That’s because Ted Williams died in 2002, so first of all, thawing him out will be useless until humanity has discovered a cure for death, which seems unlikely to ever happen. It would mean repairing age-related damage at the cellular level, particularly to the neurons and dendrites in the brain. Secondly, Ted Williams’ head is actually severed and frozen separately in its own canister. So we’ll have to cure not only death, but decapitation. But the main reason you can’t bring back The Thumper is that we have a word for what happens to the body when it’s plunged into liquid nitrogen: frostbite. Have you ever left a bottle of beer in the freezer too long? That’s what happens to your cells. Water, which makes up 75% of our bodies, expands when frozen, and jagged spear-like ice crystals tear through the cell walls, spilling organelles all over the place and causing massive cell death. Cryonics has a place in all the science fiction classics: Aliens. Futurama. Demolition Man. Encino Man. But as it stands today, cryonics is a scam perpetrated on rich, old, eccentric cowards hellbent on cheating the Reaper. (Or, in this case, crazy relatives who can’t let go.) So no, you’re not getting Ted Williams’ autograph. Ted Williams is a Boston Red Soxicle. And you’ll be going away for a long time, you monster.
I may be a headless Klondike bar, but you’re a dick.
So, if most animals cannot survive having their cells frozen, how does the wood frog do it? As anyone fond of Christmas cookies knows, the secret to surviving a long, cold winter is sugar. (And Vitamin D caplets chased with rum.) The “remarkable chain reaction” I referenced earlier begins in the liver, where the frog’s body begins manufacturing massive amounts of glucose upon first frost. The antifreeze you put in your car is ethylene glycol, a sugar-based alcohol (I was not kidding about the rum), and the glucose in the frog’s cells indeed acts the same way. There is also a healthy dose of piss in the mix; urea, the yellow protein in urine, floods the cells and acts as another cryoprotectant. So while the frog’s metabolism may be shut down entirely, and the outer part of its body may be frozen stiff, its internal organs are merely the consistency (and probably the taste) of a Slurpee that’s been left under a movie theatre seat a while; a sweet froggy sludge. So as long as the temperature where it’s buried itself doesn’t get much below 26 degrees Fahrenheit, the frog’s cryoprotectant glucose and urea should prevent its cells from exploding into jagged shards. What’s more, the wood frog has a gene that prevents glycation, which is more or less what it sounds like: syrup gumming up the cellular works.
To be sure, Ted Williams and his canister-mates in the meat locker have been pumped full of cryoprotectants, too, loosely based on the wood frog’s. But there’s quite a difference between 26 degrees and -321 degrees, the state of complete metabolic arrest. (It’s 345 degrees. I did the math.) And there’s quite a difference between surviving an Alaskan winter and waiting for a cure for death, though I must imagine it feels the same for the citizens of Anchorage. Still, despite my belief that cryonics is a way to swindle money out of people who do not know when to cash in their chips, what we learn from the wood frog has its real world advantages, too. In the United States, 13 people die every day for want of a heart transplant; the problem isn’t available hearts so much as the fact that a heart on ice is only good for about eight hours. If we could preserve organs for months instead of hours, we could save innumerable lives in the future. And of course, the science fiction fan in me knows that if we ever get around to interstellar travel, cryonics is the only way to bring astronauts to other star systems. Even if we ever develop nuclear pulse propulsion technology, it would take 85 years to get to Proxima Centauri… and even though it’s the closest star to ours, it’s not even a star we’re interested in visiting. A child born on the spacecraft could easily die of old age before ever feeling the heat of a sun on his face. If we ever become space tourists visiting distant galaxies, we’ll need to learn and improve on the winter survival mechanism of a tiny, innocuous frog in the Canadian tundra.
Or perhaps we can just appreciate it metaphorically. Why must every natural curiosity became a matter of “What humans can do with it when we have spaceships?” If nothing else, we should marvel at a frog that dies and resurrects itself yearly with the warm sun; that goes willingly, body and soul, into the ice with the blind faith that the thaw will come.