22 February 2012

A Pleistocene plant resurrected

Two researchers in the Russian Academy of Sciences have successfully grown and propagated a relative of the narrow-leaved campion from ancient tissue.  As reported in Not Exactly Rocket Science:
The plant owes its miraculous resurrection to a team of scientists led by David Gilichinsky, and an enterprising ground squirrel. Back in the Upper Pleistocene, the squirrel buried the plant’s fruit in the banks of the Kolyma River. They froze.

Over millennia, the squirrel’s burrow fossilised and was buried under increasing layers of ice. The plants within were kept at a nippy -7 degrees Celsius, surrounded by permanently frozen soil and the petrifying bones of mammoths and woolly rhinos. They never thawed. They weren’t disturbed. By the time they were found and defrosted by scientists, they had been buried to a depth of 38 metres, and frozen for around 31,800 years.
Modern counterparts of these plants exist, but Svetlana Yashina, who regenerated the plants, took careful steps to assure the antiquity of the tissue from which they were derived.

The data are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Additional details are offered in a report in the New York Times:
Some of the storage chambers in the burrows contain more than 600,000 seeds and fruits...

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.


  1. This just boggles the mind on so many levels. Firstly, I suppose, that it could even be done. But it also makes me wonder if this kind of thing is such a good idea. Plants are one thing, but what if we decide to start resurrecting long-extinct bugs and/or other animals. I read not long ago about someone in Europe who is trying to recreate the aurochs by some method. (Reverse genetic engineering?) If it could ever be done, you just know some fool somewhere is going to pull a 'Jurassic Park' and bring dinosaurs or some equally uncontrollable creature (bacterium?) back to life!

  2. I had the same thoughts as Anonymous. To think that this plant seed finally came to life after thousands of years is truly amazing. Even with plants I would guess you would have to be careful not to resurrect some plant from the past that might prove destructive to the current environment. Think of kudzu!


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