Tuesday, 3 April 2012


sn: 42917818

Frozen in time: The return of the Ancient flower.

“ Wake me up in 30 000 years. Thanks”
The sci-fi geek in many of us has probably considered the prospects of “freezing” ourselves in time to be reawakened in the future. Complete nonsense right? Russian scientists argue that this might not be the case.
Enter into the world of cryopreservation and regeneration. A world where we could potentially see the regeneration of species that have been extinct for thousands of years. But how? You may ask. It make sense to think that all organic matter required for such a feat must have decayed over these thousands of years.  It’s not like they had cryobanks back in, well , pre-history.

Immature fruit of Silene stenophylla from burrow buried in permafrost more than 30,000 y ago. (A) Dissected fruit showing seeds and placenta (P). (B) Fragment of placenta with seeds at different developmental stages. (Scale bars, 1 mm.) [2]

The answer to this predicament amazingly, lies in the burrow of an ancient squirrel. That’s right,an ancient squirrel. Buried deep into the frozen layers of Siberia, scientists have discovered ancient squirrel burrows harbouring treasure of seed and fruit tissue burried under  ten's of metres of frozen ice [1] . This “permafrost” coupled with the highly efficient burrowing technique of the squirrels has acted as a perfect chamber for preservation of organisms. "It's a natural cryobank." Says Gubin, from the team of scientists who lead the excavation[5].
After stumbling upon this natural treasure chest, the group of scientists have uncovered more than 600 000 seeds; some of which happened to be of the lucky flowering plant species Silene stenophylla, which radiocarbon dating renders to be about 31,800 years old, plus or minus 300 years[1]. And so, with the help of some “clonal micropropogation” and “organogenesis”[5],  scientists have been able to  give this ancient flower a second lease on life. And yes, it is functioning and reproducing  as if it had not experienced a 30 000 year old break at all.

Flowering plants of Silene stenophylla. (A) Plant grown in vitro culture from seed of an extant plant. (B) Plant regenerated in vitro culture from tissue of fossil fruit with primary strictly female flower. (C) Plant regenerated from tissue of fossil fruit with both female (f) and bisexual (b) flowers. [2]
The study has demonstrated that tissue can survive ice conservation for tens of thousands of years, and that permafrost, which makes up 20-25% of the world surface [3], may be acting as a vast time-capsule of life just waiting to be uncovered by scientists today.

So what does this mean for humankind, other than of course fuelling the dreams of sci-fi geeks around the world? "We consider it essential to continue permafrost studies in search of an ancient genetic pool, that of pre-existing life, which hypothetically has long since vanished from the earth's surface," Say the scientists from the expedition[5]. If there is potential that preserved tissue can be found in these permafrost’s, this may be a goldmine for evolutionary genetics.

My Acorn! [6]
Infact, the scientists have already been able to identify differences between the ancient plant and what is thought to be its modern day successor’s physical and sexual features, classing them as two distinct phenotypes [2]. " This may suggest that the genotype of the ancient plants may be different from that of the modern plants...” Reads the paper [2]. Dr Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology unit, Canada, said he was eager to see scientists compare the DNA from the ancient and modern specimens to pinpoint the genetic changes that were responsible for the plant's evolution. A feat he remarked to be "... completely unheard of before..." [1].  

This discovery has the potential to reveal the changes organisms have undergone over a very long time scale [7], allowing scientists to examine cells themselves rather than fossil relics and perhaps fully understand the lost ecology of periods such as the Ice Age.  After all, we would not be here without the history that has preceded us, and this may be a ticket to understanding both then and now a little better. 

A 'mammoth' discovery [6]
And just to tantalise your imagination a little more, the scientists are not discounting the possibilities of resurrecting much bigger things, adding that “If we are lucky, we can find some frozen squirrel tissue, and this path could lead us all the way to mammoth.”

So, who’s up for some cryopreservation?

Works Cited

[1] Associated Press in Moscow . (2012). Russian scientists regenerate ice age plant. Retrieved March 19, 2012, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/21/russian-scientists-regenerate-ice-age-plant
[2] David Gilichinsky, S. Y. (2012). Regeneration of whole fertile plants from 30,000-y-old. Retrieved March 19, 2012, from http://www.pnas.org.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/content/109/10/4008.full.pdf
[3] IPA. (2012). Retrieved March 19, 2012, from http://ipa.arcticportal.org/resources/what-is-permafrost
[4] The Blaze. (2012). Scientists Resurrect 30,000-Year-Old Plant Using Genetic Material From Frozen Tissues Found in Siberia. Retrieved March 19, 2012, from http://www.theblaze.com/stories/scientists-resurrect-30000-year-old-plant-using-seeds-found-frozen-in-siberia/
[5]The Guardian. (2012). Russian scientists generate Ice Age plant. Retrieved March 19, 2012, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/21/russian-scientists-regenerate-ice-age-plant
[6] Wikja. (2002). Scrat. Retrieved March 20, 2012, from http://iceage.wikia.com/wiki/Scrat
[7] Potter, N. (2012). Flowering Plant Revived After 30,000 Years in Russian Permafrost. Retrieved March 19, 2012, from http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/technology/2012/02/flowering-plant-revived-after-30000-years-in-russian-permafrost/

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