Plant blooms again after spending 32,000 years in permafrost

Wed, Feb 22, 2012, 00:00

SCIENTISTS HAVE revived a fertile plant from the remains of its 32,000-year-old fruit found deep in the Siberian ice and buried within the fossilised burrows of ancient squirrels.

The resurrected plant, from an era of woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth cats, is the oldest viable multicellular living organism, according to the study published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It is also the first plant returned to life from permafrost conditions, researchers said.

The discovery raises the possibility of reviving other frozen organisms with prehistoric gene pools, researchers said.

Using a horticulture technique called micropropagation, the researchers grew the plant from fruit tissue in a test tube of nutrients. The ones that grew roots were transferred into pots with soil and light, where they developed flowers and seeds.

“There is abundant permafrost in northern Alaska and Canada,” said Buford Price, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who edited the paper, in an email.

Permafrost is soil that has been at, or below, freezing for at least two years. Deep permafrost, such as that which developed during the Pleistocene Epoch 2.5 million years ago, may persist down to several hundred metres.

Finding an organism that could produce a plant with dark green leaves and small white flowers shows the benefit of pursuing goals that seem impossible, he said.

Price said he expects the researchers to “get increased funding levels to expand this work, going deeper and looking at other likely locations of animal burrows where plants were stashed”.

The fruit was found preserved 38m (124ft) deep in permafrost ice at below-freezing temperatures that hadn’t melted or been disturbed since the late Pleistocene epoch.

The ancient burrows can store as many as 800,000 seeds, the report said.

Permafrost covers about 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface and is now under extensive investigation for preserved life that could be revived, according to the researchers led by the late David Gilichinsky at the Institutes of Cell Biophysics and Physicochemical and Biological Problems in Soil Science at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in Pushchino, Russia. – (Bloomberg)