Researchers from Reading University and the British Antarctic Survey have managed to revive moss that was encased in ice for 1,530 years. The results were published this week as an open access format in the journal Current Biology.
Permafrost describes soil that has been below the freezing point for longer than two years. In the past, moss has been revived from permafrost after no more than 20 years. The only organisms that have previously been revived on a millennial time scale have been bacteria. Moss has deep evolutionary roots, as it was one of the first non-vascular plants to emerge on land. They are widespread in the polar regions and are fantastic at fixing carbon. They are the first plant to be shown to survive the extreme conditions of long-term freezing.
The researchers extracted the frozen moss cores and then carefully incubated portions, providing optimal light and temperature. The moss began to grow a few weeks later. Carbon dating puts the moss at 1530 years old, and the team estimates that the plants were a few decades old when the permafrost set in. This durability could help maintain biodiversity as small ice ages come and go, like the Little Ice Age in Europe.
Extracting the moss cores. Photo credit: Peter Boelen
Though lead researcher Peter Convey admits it is a bit of a stretch, he thinks this could lead to finding more complex organisms capable of surviving the permafrost longterm. Multicellular organisms have a tougher time when it comes to freezing and thawing out because water expands when it freezes, causing tremendous damage to cells and tissue. There are frog and fish species capable of freezing seasonally during the winter, though they don’t totally freeze solid. They use glucose to act as an anti-freeze and keep their blood moving.
Cryonics is often portrayed science fiction movies as a way to freeze a human body either until science can offer up a life-saving medical treatment, punishment, or for time travel. Unfortunately, it looks like the idea of getting frozen and thawing out at some point in the future just won’t work for humans. The levels of glucose used by fish and frogs to stay alive while their exteriors freeze is much too high for our organs to handle, and would result in death.