Plant regenerated - 30 000 years on

2012-02-21 16:52

Washington - Fruit seeds stored away by squirrels more than 30 000 years ago and found in Siberian permafrost have been regenerated into full flowering plants by scientists in Russia, a new study has revealed.

The seeds of the herbaceous Silene stenophylla are far and away the oldest plant tissue to have been brought back to life, according to lead researchers Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The latest findings could be a landmark in research of ancient biological material and the race to potentially revive other species, including some that are extinct.

And they highlight the importance of permafrost itself in the "search of an ancient genetic pool, that of pre-existing life, which hypothetically has long since vanished from the earth's surface", they wrote.

The previous record for viable regeneration of ancient flora was with 2 000-year-old date palm seeds at the Masada fortress near the Dead Sea in Israel.

The latest success is older by a significant order of magnitude, with researchers saying radiocarbon dating has confirmed the tissue to be 31 800 years old, give or take 300 years.

The study, to appear in Tuesday's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, described the discovery of 70 squirrel hibernation burrows along the bank of the lower Kolyma river, in Russia's northeast Siberia, and bearing hundreds of thousands of seed samples from various plants.

"All burrows were found at depths of 20-40 metres from the present day surface and located in layers containing bones of large mammals such as mammoth, wooly rhinoceros, bison, horse, deer, and other representatives of fauna" from the Late Pleistocene Age.

The permafrost essentially acted as a giant freezer, and the squirreled-away seeds and fruit resided in this closed world - undisturbed and unthawed, at an average of -7 degrees Celsius - for tens of thousands of years.

Scientists were able to grow new specimens from such old plant material in large part because the burrows were quickly covered with ice, and then remained "continuously frozen and never thawed", in effect preventing any permafrost degradation.

In their lab near Moscow, the scientists sought to grow plants from mature S Stenophylla seeds, but when that failed, they turned to the plant's placental tissue, the fruit structure to which seeds attach, to successfully grow regenerated whole plants in pots under controlled light and temperature.

"This is an amazing breakthrough," Grant Zazula of the Yukon Palaeontology Programme at Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada, told The New York Times.

"I have no doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim."

Scientists have known for years that certain plant cells can last for millennia under the right conditions.

Some earlier claims of regeneration have not held up to scientific scrutiny, but the Yashina/Gilichinsky team was careful to use radiocarbon dating to ensure that the seeds and fruit found in the permafrost were not modern contaminants from S Stenophylla, which still grows on the Siberian tundra.

Arctic lupines, wild perennial plants in North America, were grown from seeds in a lemming burrow believed to be 10 000 years old and found in the mid-20th century by a gold miner in the Yukon.

Zazula recently used radiocarbon methodology to determine that those seeds were modern contaminants, according to the Times.

  • ticklemeplant - 2012-02-21 17:32

    30,000 years is amazing. I have a house plant that appears to die and come back to life that I grow with my students. Search TickleMe Plant to see the only plant that will closes its leaves and lower its branches and fake death, then come back to life

      Darryl - 2012-02-21 19:29

      Talking about the oddness of plants, my favourite are the Venus flytrap, Sundews and Pitcher plant families. There's something deliciously ironic about plants eating animals :)

      Robin - 2012-02-22 06:24

      Mimosa pudica is indeed a fascinating plant but unfortunately it has become an invasive weed in many countries. From it's original habitat in Central and South America it has become a circumtropical problem plant.

  • drcpot - 2012-02-21 21:11

    Sorry but I dont trust carbon dating, esp. not if more than 30 000 years.

      Robin - 2012-02-22 06:11

      Right. Anything over about 5000 years and it becomes very dodgy.

      Andrew - 2012-02-22 07:26

      I'm no scientist, but it seems unrealistic to accept that such a widely accepted method of the scientific experts is so obviously flawed (if you believe the link posted). Here's a link which addresses the criticism raised by your link : -- go to the carbon dating section for detailed explanations of the theory. It appears that carbon dating methods are highly accurate in comparison to other observable dating test such as tree-ring dating to at least 8000 years. Again, I have no qualification in this field, but it is a fact that many young-earth creationists do spread these criticisms as 'truths' because carbon dating disproves their theory, while in reality the criticisms have no basis in reality. So be careful what sources you use in forming your opinions of scientific accuracy.

      Robin - 2012-02-22 10:32

      @Andrew: Carbon 14 (the isotope most commonly used in radiodating) has a half life of 5730 years. I would therefore believe the accuracy of anything dated to around 6000 or 7000 years but beyond that the accuracy decreases so significantly that dates given as (say) 60 000 years, determined by C14, can be way out by a factor of 10% (according to my guru many, many years ago!). Unfortunately C14 dating is about all we have for carbonaceous matter though other elemental isotopes can be reliably used to date surrounding rocks etc. to way beyond the 60 000 year end point so commonly given for C14 dating. And, Andrew, you're right - creationists will deny science even when it's plain and large as life. A belief is not science and science is not a belief!

  • Darren - 2012-02-22 08:57

    I think its really cool. I have a question though. they say its a fruit.. what kinda fruit? or did i miss it in the article?

      TSR01 - 2012-02-22 10:34

      Poisonberry. :) Well, considering the seeds / fruits / nuts were found in squirrel burrows, it should be safe to assume that it is non-toxic and edible. - apparently the plant regenerated was the aforementioned, though upon reading, it looks like the author of this article may have committed plagiarism to an extent.

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