EcoAlert: Arctic Plant Is Revived After 32,000 Years

 

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Living plants have been generated from the fruit of a little arctic flower, the narrow-leafed campion, that died in Siberia 32,000 years ago, according to a team of Russian scientists. The fruit was stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of northeastern Siberia and lay permanently frozen until excavated by scientists a few years ago, making it the oldest plant that has ever been grown from ancient tissue. The new discovery is supported by a firm radiocarbon date.


The old record was held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2,000 years old that was recovered from the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel.

“This is an amazing breakthrough,” said Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Program at Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, who also showed that what were believed to be ancient lupine seeds found by the Yukon gold miner were in fact modern, reported the New York Times. “I have no doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim.” 

The Russian researchers excavated ancient squirrel burrows exposed on the bank of the lower Kolyma River, an area inhabited by woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceroses during the last ice age. Soon after being dug, the burrows were sealed with windblown earth, buried under 125 feet of sediment and permanently frozen at minus 7 degrees Celsius.

Some of the storage chambers in the burrows contain more than 600,000 seeds and fruits. Many from a species that most closely resembles a plant found today, the narrow-leafed campion (Silene stenophylla).
Working with a burrow from the site called Duvanny Yar, the Russian researchers tried to germinate the campion seeds, but failed, according to the New York Times. They then took cells from the placenta, the organ in the fruit that produces the seeds. They thawed out the cells and grew them in culture dishes into whole plants.

The Russian team says it obtained a radiocarbon date of 31,800 years from seeds attached to the same placenta from which the living plants were propagated.

The researchers suggest that special circumstances may have contributed to the remarkable longevity of the campion plant cells. Squirrels construct their larders next to permafrost to keep seeds cool during the arctic summers, so the fruits would have been chilled from the start. The fruit’s placenta contains high levels of sucrose and phenols, which are good antifreeze agents.

The Russians measured the ground radioactivity at the site, which can damage DNA, and say the amount of gamma radiation the campion fruit accumulated over 30,000 years is not much higher than that reported for a 1,300-year-old sacred lotus seed, from which a plant was successfully germinated.
If the claim proves true, scientists should be able to study evolution in real time by comparing the ancient and living campions. Possibly other ancient species can be resurrected from the permafrost, including plants that have long been extinct.

Th e image at top of page shows the western side of the volcanically active Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia. The image was generated using the first data collected during the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM).

Read the New York Times article 

 

 

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