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Scientists Revive Long-dormant Plants

Catherine La Farge gets an up-close look at bryophytes uncovered by the retreating Teardrop Glacier on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. (Credit: University of Alberta)
Scientists have succeeded in bringing back to life plants that have spent more than 400 years under a glacier.

The plants known as bryophytes, more commonly known as mosses and liverworts, were left behind by retreating glaciers and are thought to be between 400 and 600 years old. The finding overturns the long-held assumption that plants exposed by shrinking glaciers are dead.

In a laboratory setting, researchers took 24 samples and were able to successfully produce eleven cultures regenerated from four species.

“These simple, efficient plants, which have been around for more than 400 million years, have evolved a unique biology for optimal resilience,” says Catherine La Farge, director and curator of the Cryptogamic Herbarium at the University of Alberta in Canada. “Any bryophyte cell can reprogram itself to initiate the development of an entire new plant. This is equivalent to stem cells in faunal systems.”

La Farge said no one expected the plants to be rejuvenated after nearly 400 year beneath a glacier.

The finding, according to La Farge, “amplifies the critical role of bryophytes in polar environments and has implications for all permafrost regions of the globe.”

“Bryophytes are extremophiles that can thrive where other plants don’t; hence they play a vital role in the establishment, colonization and maintenance of polar ecosystems,” she said. “This discovery emphasizes the importance of research that helps us understand the natural world, given how little we still know about polar ecosystems - with applied spinoffs for understanding reclamation that we may never have anticipated.”

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.