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400 Year Old Plants Frozen Under The Arctic Come Back From The Dead
May 28, 2013
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400-year-old-plants-frozen-under-the-arctic-come-back-from-the-dead-feature1.jpg
(Photo: Catherine La Farge)

Researchers from the University of Alberta have made a remarkable discovery during an expedition to the Arctic.

They found plants that have been buried under the ice and frozen for centuries, but are now sprouting new growth.

400-year-old-plants-frozen-under-the-arctic-come-back-from-the-dead-feature2.jpg The researchers were exploring an area near the Teardrop Glacier (left), as part of a project looking at the effects of pollution in the Arctic. The glaciers in that region have been melting at an increasingly quicker rate since 2004 - about 3 to 4 metres a year.

As the ice disappears, land is being exposed which has been covered since the "Little Ice Age" which ran from about 1550 to 1850.

"We ended up walking along the edge of the glacier margin and we saw these huge populations coming out from underneath the glacier that seemed to have a greenish tint," said Catherine La Farge, lead author of the study.

The plants are known as bryophytes - the most famous of which is moss.

However, many bryophytes are not like plants we see every day, as they can survive in the long Arctic winters and essentially shut down, only to bounce back when the weather gets warmer - basically, come back from the dead.

"These guys are really adept in extreme environments," La Farge said.

What set this particular group of plants apart is the fact they were buried under the ice for so long and actually came out from underneath.

"We were aware that there was vegetation coming out from underneath the glacier," La Farge said. "But we had no idea that there was such a diversity of bryophytes that were coming out from underneath the glacier."

The scientists took 140 samples of the plants and checked them out under a microscope.

"When we looked at them in detail and brought them to the lab, I could see some of the stems actually had new growth of green lateral branches, and that said to me that these guys are regenerating in the field, and that blew my mind," La Farge told the BBC.

"All we did was we took the material, we ground it up, sprinkled it onto a Petri dish and stuck it in the growth chamber to see what would happen," she told The Canadian Press.

400-year-old-plants-frozen-under-the-arctic-come-back-from-the-dead-feature3.jpg
(Photo: Catherine La Farge)

"We had no idea if it would work, we just wanted to make sure that what we were seeing in the samples coming out from under the glacier . . . was that possible."

Using this technique, they were able to grow 11 cultures from seven specimens, which represented four different species.

The researchers say a number of life forms are suddenly showing up as the glaciers melt, including many species which scientists have never really seen before.

"It's a whole world of what's coming out from underneath the glaciers that really needs to be studied," La Farge said. "It's kind of like a blanket being pulled back, allowing you to see what the Little Ice Age was like."

"The glaciers are disappearing pretty fast - they're going to expose all this terrestrial vegetation, and that's going to have a big impact."

400-year-old-plants-frozen-under-the-arctic-come-back-from-the-dead-feature4.jpg

And that impact could one day go beyond Earth, as these plants could perhaps be used to help develop life in extreme environments, such as Mars.

"Maybe astronauts would want to take bryophytes to other planets to see if they would grow and how they could modify extraterrestrial landscapes," La Farge said.

"We now talk about people . . . wanting to go to Mars and starting a whole new world out there. If you were going to send any kind of plant up there to see whether it could survive, bryophytes would probably be one of your key systems to try," she told CP.

The findings are in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Theworld.org has an interview with La Farge which you can listen to right here.

(Teardrop Glacier photo: Catherine La Farge)

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