Scientists have successfully germinated a plant from an Ice Age fruit found squirrel burrow deep in the Russian permafrost. At 30,000 years old, the plant material is the oldest plant to ever be revived.
The squirrels' burrows were found along the banks of the Kolyma River in Siberia, which is rich in bones of mammals and fauna from the Ice Age — including specimens from the mammoth.
Russian scientists from the Institute of Cell Biophysics uncovered the burrows at a depth of approximately 65 — 130 feet deep. This means they were deep enough in the tundra that burrows froze permanently and their contents, including seeds, fruit and plant material were never defrosted until the team found them.
The team from the Institute of Cell Biophysics, led by Professor David Gilichinsky* brought the material back to their lab and tried germinating mature seeds from the Silene stenophylla (of the campion family). When that didn't work they extracted material — which they referred to as "placental tissue" — from the fruit of the plant and propagated it in petri dishes.
Surprisingly, that did the trick.
The team theorizes in their paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), this method worked due to higher sucrose levels in the placental tissues.
Sugars are needed to provide growing cells food and also act as preservatives. So it may be that sugar rich placental tissues are able to remain viable for much longer than other plant materials including mature seeds.
Dr. Robin Probert, head of conservation and technology at the UK's Millenium Seed Bank told BBC Nature: "I'm not surprised that it's been possible to find living material as old as this, and this is exactly where we would go looking, in permafrost and these fossilized rodent burrows with their caches of seeds. But it is a surprise to me that they're finding viable material from this placental tissue rather than mature seeds."
Prior to this, the record for the oldest plant to be revived occurred with date palm seeds stored for 2,000 years at Masada in Israel, so the placental tissue theory is an important new understanding for what is needed for resurrecting ancient material.
Flashing forward to the present day, the revived Silene stenophylla was compared to existing versions of the plant, which is still common in the area. Despite being the same classification of plant, there were subtle differences that the research team couldn't account for.
The Russian research team says it is these kinds of differences that will help us understand more about the Ice Age environment and how evolution works.
The new little Silene stenophylla is lovely and its resurrection is interesting in its own right given the unprecedented age of its parent plant. But let's be honest, any story about the Ice Age will always be overshadowed by the desire and drive for bringing a mammoth back to life.
Ever since bones, tusk and frozen remains have been uncovered in the permafrost many humans have been obsessed with the idea of bringing this mysterious creature back to life.
All we can say is now that the mammoth will have something to munch on, hopefully he'll spring from a Petri dish and back onto the Russian tundra soon.
* Sadly, Prof. Gilichinsky died before his paper was published.
Via BBC Nature