Blooming miracle: Russians give life to Ice Age flower
LIVING plants have been generated from the fruit of a small arctic flower, the narrow-leafed campion, that died 32,000 years ago, a team of Russian scientists reports.
The fruit was stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of north-eastern Siberia and lay permanently frozen until excavated by scientists a few years ago.
This would be the oldest plant by far that has ever been grown from ancient tissue. The present record is held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2000 years old that was recovered from the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel.
Seeds and certain cells can last a long time under the right conditions, but many claims of extreme longevity have failed on closer examination. Tales of wheat grown from seeds in the tombs of the pharaohs have long been discredited.
Lupins were germinated from seeds in a 10,000-year-old lemming burrow found by a gold miner in Canada. But the seeds, when later dated by the radiocarbon method, turned out to be modern contaminants. Despite this unpromising background, the new claim is supported by a firm radiocarbon date.
The report is by a team led by Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences near Moscow, and appears in Tuesday’s The Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences.
‘‘This is an amazing breakthrough,’’ said Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Program at Whitehorse, Canada. ‘‘I have no doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim.’’ It was Mr Zazula who showed the apparently ancient lupin seeds found by the gold miner were modern.
But the extraordinary report is likely to provoke calls for more proof. ‘‘It’s beyond the bounds of what we’d expect,’’ said Alastair Murdoch, an expert on seed viability at the University of Reading in England.
When poppy seeds are kept at minus 7 degrees, the temperature the Russians reported for the campions, after 160 years just 2 per cent of the seeds germinate, Dr Murdoch noted.
The Russian researchers excavated squirrel burrows on the bank of the lower Kolyma River. They were 38 metres below the present surface in layers containing bones of large Ice Age mammals, such as mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, horse and deer.
The scientists grew 36 ancient plants, which appeared identical to the present day narrow-leafed campion until they flowered, when they produced narrower and more splayed petals.
Stanislav Gubin, one of the authors of the study, says it demonstrates tissue can survive ice conservation for tens of thousands of years, opening the way to the possible resurrection of Ice Age mammals.
‘‘If we are lucky, we can find some frozen squirrel tissue,’’ Mr Gubin said. ‘‘And this path could lead us all the way to mammoth.’’