February 22, 2012
Russian Researchers Claim They’ve Regenerated 32,000 Year-Old Plant
According to a recent report in the New York Times, Russian scientists have successfully generating a living plant (Silene stenophylla) from the fruit of a species that went extinct in the last ice age some 32,000 years ago.
The paper reported Monday that the plant´s fruit was apparently stowed away by an arctic ground squirrel in the wastelands of northeastern Siberia. Hidden beneath the permafrost of the frozen tundra for some 32 millennia, Russian researches recovered the almost perfectly preserved seed in an archeological dig several years ago.
“The squirrels dug the frozen ground to build their burrows, which are about the size of a soccer ball, putting in hay first and then animal fur for a perfect storage chamber,” said Stanislav Gubin from the Russian Academy of Sciences, one of the researchers and co-author of the team´s report
Researchers say the squirrel tunnels were found some 125 feet beneath the frozen surface and were part of a larger, clustered find that included mammoths, bison, a wooly rhinoceros, horse and deer.
“It´s a natural cryobank,” Gubin told the Guardian, who spent several sorting through the site´s rich finds.
Though the scientists´ (re)creation has not yet been verified by outside scientists, if valid, it will smash the existing record for the oldest plant to be grown from ancient tissue.
According to the Times: “The present record is held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2,000 years old that was recovered from the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel.”
A report by the Russian researchers was published in the Tuesday edition of the prestigious journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Times reported that the researchers were able to recover cells from the fruit´s placenta, the organ responsible for producing seeds in most flowering plant species.
Given that such specimens typically degenerate relatively quickly, many biologists will remain skeptical until the results can be independently confirmed.
However, one eminent researcher who has examined the available data believes that the Russian scientists´ claim is legitimate.
Dr. Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Program at Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada told the New York Times that: “This is an amazing breakthrough “¦ [and] I have no doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim.”
Zazula´s endorsement is likely to carry significant weight with his colleagues. The Canadian scientist played a critical role in disproving similar claims made several years ago by researchers who believed that they had germinated ancient seeds found in a 10,000-year-old lemming burrow in the Yukon. Zazula subsequently used radiocarbon dating to show that the purportedly ancient wheat seeds were actually modern contaminants that had drifted into the archeological site.
Still, for some scientists, the resurrection of a plant from 32,000-year-old tissue stretches the limits of credulity.
Quite simply, seed expert Professor Alastair Murdoch of England´s University of Reading told the Times, “[i]t´s beyond the bounds of what we´d expect.”
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