Farmers looking to protect their crops from frost may soon get help from the most unlikely of sources, the winter flounder that swim between Labrador and Chesapeake Bay.

The winter flounder has long been known to carry a natural antifreeze that keeps its blood flowing at temperatures several degrees below zero by inhibiting the formation of ice crystals.

Now scientists at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge have begun transferring the fish antifreeze gene into plants, on the theory that it might help reduce damage from frost.

When plants are exposed to temperatures below freezing, ice forms inside individual cells, breaking them apart.

In early tests in tobacco plants -- the white rat of plant research -- the transformation seems to work. Jesse Jaynes, a researcher in the LSU biology department, compared the reaction of tobacco seedlings containing the new gene and control seedlings without it to a temperature shock beginning just above freezing and sinking steadily to 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

"There was a significant difference," Jaynes said he was surprised to find, "between the damage done to the {transformed} plants and the control."

"The challenge now is to put this gene into plants where it might be more useful, like citrus or strawberries," Jaynes said.