400-Year-Old Plants Embedded in Glacier Revived by Scientists

Monday, 03 Jun 2013 07:36 AM

By Alexandra Ward

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Scientists in Canada have revived a 400-year-old moss specimen that was embedded in the ice of a glacier, a discovery that could ultimately help researchers further investigate if plant life could survive on another planet, namely Mars.

The research, led by University of Alberta biologist Catherine La Farge, was published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. La Farge and her team collected a moss sample that was uncovered after ice from the Teardrop glacier in northern Canada's Ellesmere Island melted away.

In an experiment, La Farge found that the moss was able to revive itself even though it had been frozen since the Little Ice Age (1550-1850). It started with a small observation she made when she brought the original sample back to the lab in 2009. La Farge noticed a part of the moss still had a tiny green stem.

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"Either it kept its color under the glacier or it grew after the moss emerged 400 years later," she told the Edmonton Journal.

La Farge put the plant material in petri dishes and, sure enough, it started to grow after about four or six weeks.

"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. And we have a 400-year-old lineage of genetic material."

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La Farge's discovery could be useful in medical research — the plant cell's amazing resiliency and ability to regrow could prove valuable — and even in space travel. For instance, before sending colonies of humans to Mars, it might be worth seeing how well moss survives the cold dry climate, she said.

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