Zombie Moss: Centuries-old Frozen Plants Brought Back to Life

  • May, 27, 2013, 10:42 PM
(Photo : Catherine La Farge)

Plants that were frozen for centuries have been observed sprouting new growth, scientists say.

Bryophytes required no special techniques to regenerate. Under lab conditions, samples of 400-year-old bryophytes have flourished. However, a 32,000-year-old Silene stenophylla specimen is the oldest frozen plant to be regenerated and these bryophytes are after them, say researchers.

A team from the University of Alberta was exploring an area around the Teardrop Glacier, high in the Canadian Arctic. They looked at some bryophyte samples under microscopes; they saw that the plants were indeed experiencing new lateral branch development or stem regeneration.

Bryophytes are non-vascular plants. They are non-flowering; instead, they reproduce asexually using spores. Additionally, they can experience clonal growth and produce a new plant from fragmented vegetative tissue that has fallen off the primary plant.

The most famous bryophyte of them all is moss. "After a hundred years, a moss may look perfectly natural and even retain its green color," says Jonathan Shaw, a scientist at the bryology lab at Duke University.

"We were aware that there was vegetation coming out from underneath the glacier," said La Farge, a representative of the environmental project looking at the effects of pollution in the arctic "But we had no idea that there was such a diversity of bryophytes that were coming out from underneath the glacier."

Radio carbon dating confirmed that the bryophytes were trapped in the glacier during the Little Ice Age some 400 years ago.

Researchers say this back-from-the-dead trick has implications for how ecosystems recover from the planet's cyclic long periods of ice coverage.

"The glaciers are disappearing pretty fast - they're going to expose all this terrestrial vegetation, and that's going to have a big impact," said La Farge.

That means they might be candidates for colonizing extreme environments - even in space.

The findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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