By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters
CNHI News Service
The Ice Age is my favorite bit of Earth history, a time when mammoths, giant beavers and saber tooth tigers roamed the world.
I was so impressed by the Ice Age when I was a child, reading about it in the school library, that I recognized the
book I had studied decades later when I stumbled across it as an adult. Being devoted to books, I happily bought a copy and perused it immediately. Imagine my pleasure, then, about the recent news that an Ice Age flowering plant some 32,000 years old has been regenerated by scientists and brought back to life.
The tale revolves around an industrious Pleistocene rodent in Siberia that took fruit from a plant botanists call Silene stenophylla and buried it deeply underground. The rodent’s burrow was sealed shut by windblown dirt. The animal’s treasure trove was frozen into the permafrost and remained frozen as the millennia unfolded.
Recently scientists from the Russian Academy of Science research institute in Pushchino took a scraping of the fruit and nurtured it in a bath of nutrients. Their efforts were rewarded when the plant not only grew, but produced healthy seeds that sprouted.
Coming back to life is not a small feat for an organism that was frozen for 32 millennia!
“It is remarkable that under deep freeze, fruit tissues…can remain viable for such a long time,” said Jane Shen-Miller, a biologist at UCLA. Quoted in Science News she went on to say: “This is like regenerating a dinosaur from tissues of an ancient egg.”
Well, it’s not exactly like that, but it’s understandable scientists are excited by the result coaxed from the frozen fruit of Silene stenophylla.
When the little Siberian plant grew up, by the way, it showed signs it is mildly different from modern Silene stenophylla. It’s petals are narrower and closer together than today’s examples of the plant. So either the species has changed a bit in the past 32,000 years or, perhaps, what the ancient rodent buried might have been a related, but different species of a plant that has since gone extinct.