Imagine putting a seed in a freezer, waiting 30,000 years, and then taking the seed out and planting it. Do you think a flower would grow?
Amazingly, scientists have just managed to do something very similar. They found the fruit of an ancient plant that had been frozen underground in Siberia — a region covering central and eastern Russia — for about 31,800 years. Using pieces of the fruit, the scientists grew plants in a lab. The new blooms have delicate white petals. They are also the oldest flowering plants that researchers have ever revived from a deep freeze.
“This is like regenerating a dinosaur from tissues of an ancient egg,” University of California, Los Angeles biologist Jane Shen-Miller told Science News.
The plant has a long history. Back when mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses roamed the land, an Arctic ground squirrel buried seeds and fruits in an underground chamber near the Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia. The ground became permafrost, a layer of soil that stays frozen for a long time.
Recently, Russian scientists dug out the old burrow and found the plant remains 38 meters (125 feet) below the surface. Back at the lab, the team fed nutrients to tissue from three of the fruits to grow shoots. Then the scientists transferred the shoots to pots filled with soil. The plants produced seeds that could be used to grow even more of them.
The ice-age plants look similar to a modern relative called the narrow-leafed campion, or Silene stenophylla. But the ancient flowers are slightly different: Their petals are a bit narrower and have a less fringed shape. It’s possible that the regrown plants belong to a different species but are closely related to S. stenophylla, botanist Bengt Oxelman of the University of Göteborg in Sweden told Science News.
It’s important for scientists to know that plant tissues can still be revived after being frozen for a long time. That’s because many researchers are trying to preserve the seeds of modern plants by freezing them and then storing them in giant lockers at various spots around the globe. One such endeavor, an underground facility in Norway, is called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It stores hundreds of thousands of frozen seeds. If a plant ever goes extinct, scientists could resurrect it by pulling its seeds from the Svalbard or other vaults.
“No one knows how long [frozen seeds] are viable for, but freezing is basically the format for all seed conservation attempts nowadays,” Sarah Sallon told Science News. She is the director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem. It’s a good thing that at least some plants are tough enough to survive the ordeal.
fruit A seed-containing reproductive organ in a plant.
permafrost A layer of soil that stays frozen for a long time.