32,000-Year-Old Siberian Plant Thawed and Grown Again

Russian scientists say they've revived a plant that had been tucked away by an arctic ground squirrel 32,000 years ago on the tundra of northeastern Siberia.

A few years ago, the scientists found the burrow stash and tried to germinate the long-frozen plant. That didn't work. So they took cells from the plant's placenta, the organ that produces seeds. After thawing out the cells, the scientists grew them into 36 "narrow-leafed campion" plants (similar to the one above). If the age for the plants' DNA stands up to further scrutiny, they will be the oldest plants ever regrown from ancient tissue.

According to The New York Times, squirrels dug the burrows on the bank of the lower Kolyma River, where mammoth and woolly rhinoceroses roamed during the last ice age. The burrows were soon buried under 125 feet of sediment and frozen at minus 7 degrees Celsius. Upon excavation, scientists found more than 600,000 seeds and fruits in the ancient storage compartments.

Other, similar claims have been made before, so the scientific community will be skeptical and want more proof that the plants actually came from ancient DNA, and not from a more modern version of the plant. But the researchers who performed the work, Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences research center, said they have solid radiocarbon evidence that the seeds are 31,800 years old. They said special conditions may have helped preserve the plant: The placenta contains high levels of sucrose and phenols, which act like antifreeze. Also, over the years the plant's fruit accumulated very little gamma radiation, which can damage DNA.

Tragically, Dr. Gilichinsky, the leader of the research team, suffered a fatal heart attack on Saturday. So Dr. Yashina and her colleagues are left to defend their work on their own. The work will be published on Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [The New York Times]

Image: Shutterstock/Le Do