WASHINGTON, June 3, 2013 - Canadian scientists have revived a 400-year-old moss specimen uncovered by a melting glacier. The findings, published in last week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have implications for biodiversity, glacial science, and even the colonization of Mars.
Led by Catherine La Farge, biologist at the University of Alberta, researchers collected the moss samples in 2009 from the retreating Teardrop Glacier on Ellesmere Island, Canada. As the glacier retreats—currently almost up to four meters per year—it reveals a perfectly preserved slice of the past, locked under the ice for centuries.
La Farge and her team camp at the foot of the glacier every Arctic summer to collect samples uncovered by the melting glacier. In 2009 La Farge noticed that some of the moss at the edge of the glacier had a greenish tinge and decided to run a simple experiment.
“Either it kept its color under the glacier or it grew after the moss emerged 400 years later,” La Farge told the Edmonton Journal. As she examined the moss further, she discovered a small green stem.
In her lab, La Farge ground up the 400-year-old moss samples, put them in 24 petri dishes filled with potting soil, and in less than six weeks the moss began to grow. Seven of the original 24 samples produced growth, and a few months later some of the dishes were almost completely covered by the live 400-year-old moss.
La Farge’s findings have several far-reaching implications that may even have an impact on the future colonization of Mars.
Bryophytes, which include mosses and liverworts, are especially durable and resilient plants. Nearly 400 million years old, mosses and other bryophytes reproduce by cloning their cells, basically needing a single cell to survive. Moss cells can also reprogram themselves to reactivate growth.
“We know that bryophytes can remain dormant for many years and then are reactivated, but nobody expected them to rejuvenate after nearly 400 years beneath a glacier,” La Farge said.
According to radiocarbon dating of the moss samples, the plants are believed to be between 400 and 600 years old, entombed under the glacier during the Little Ice Age (1550-1850). This live moss gives La Farge and her team “a 400-year-old lineage of genetic material” to study.
La Farge’s research has also debunked the belief that glaciers destroy all plant life and that vegetation exposed by shrinking glaciers is always dead. Additionally, it shows that “glaciers could provide an ‘unrecognized genetic reservoir’” at a time when biodiversity is shrinking.
“Now we have to think there may be populations of land plants that survived that freezing,” she said. “It makes you wonder what’s under the big ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctic and alpine glaciers.”
There has even been talk of applying La Farge’s research to the colonization of Mars, since plants that can survive harsh conditions and re-grow would certainly be helpful to human habitation of the planet.
“We really have not examined all the biological systems that exist in the world; we don’t know it all,” La Farge said. “We need curiosity-driven research to make these discoveries.”
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