On the frozen edge of the Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia, in an ancient pantry harboring seeds and other stores, an Arctic ground squirrel burrowed into the dirt and buried a small, dark fruit from a flowering plant. The squirrel’s prize quickly froze in the cold ground and was preserved in permafrost, waiting to grow into a fully fledged flowering plant until it was unearthed again. After 30,000 years, it finally was. Scientists in Russia have now regenerated this Pleistocene plant, transplanting it into a pot in the lab. A year later, it grew forth and bore fruit.
The specimen is distinctly different from the modern-day version of Silene stenophylla, or narrow-leafed Campion. It suggests that the permafrost is a potential new source of ancient gene pools long believed to be extinct, scientists said.
The fruits were buried about 125 feet in undisturbed, never thawed permafrost sediments, nestled at roughly 19.4 degrees F (-7 C). Radiocarbon dating showed the fruits were 31,800 years old, give or take about 300 years. Seeds are incredible things, storing the embryo of a new plant and encasing it in protective material until conditions are right for it to germinate.
Scientists led by David Gilichinsky at the Russian Academy of Sciences worked with three of these fruits and took placental tissue samples. They fed the tissue cultures a cocktail of nutrients to induce root growth, and once the plants were rooted, they were transplanted into pots in a greenhouse. Just as they were supposed to, plants grew, developed flowers and fruits, and went to seed…
All of this is interesting not just because it’s amazing to regenerate a Pleistocene plant, which of course it is, but because the permafrost may be an important new gene pool. Other ancient squirrel burrows have been found in the Yukon territory and in Alaska. That’s interesting for pure research, but also because of what may happen as the planet warms and more permafrost regions thaw. Organisms will be released from their long, cold sleep, and these ancient life forms could become part of modern ecosystems, affecting modern phenotypes and changing the landscape.
Permafrost has long served as a functional deep freeze for animal and vegetable matter reaching back into the last Ice Age. There have been dinners of thawed mammoth for nutball gourmands – and, yes, that brings up the suggestion again of cloning the wooly mammoth in a modern elephant.
Frankly, I’m as interested in the vegetable side of the spectrum of life. It’s more likely to aid in adaptability to climate change – especially since our corporate masters and their flunkies in politics and society seem to have little inclination to respond any useful view of science.