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Ancient moss revived by scientist

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First Posted: May 28, 2013 09:18 AM EDT
The retreating glacier reveals frozen bryophytes.

The retreating glacier reveals frozen bryophytes. Credit:Catherine La Farge

After a 400-year stay in nature's own freezer, ancient plants are now uncovered and regenerated by a group of scientists from the University of Alberta.

Dr. Catherine La Farge and her colleagues came across an intact moss (a bryophyte) in the retreat of Tear Drop Glacier on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This giant ice mass, which has been shrinking since the year 2004 at the rate of 3-4 meters a year, has been exposing swaths of plant life that were typically frozen in there for centuries.

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What caught Catherine's interest was that bryophytes (a term given to non-vascular plants like mosses) had preserved almost perfectly, despite being in these ice sheets for centuries.

"We were sort of blown away by the biomass of intact communities being exhumed from the rapidly retreating glaciers," La Farge said in a telephone interview from Edmonton.

Many of the plants uncovered still had a greenish hue, which is why, Catherine and her colleagues collected around 140 samples from the island, and bought them back to Edmonton, to find out if these bryophytes could survive in their natural environment.

"All we did was we took the material, we ground it up, sprinkled it onto a Petri dish and stuck it in the growth chamber to see what would happen," she said. "We had no idea if it would work, we just wanted to make sure that what we were seeing in the samples coming out from under the glacier . . . was that possible."

With this simple, yet effective technique, the team managed to regenerate and grow 11 cultures from 7 different species of bryophytes. According to this research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bryophytes are not exactly the oldest plants that have demonstrated the ability to regenerate; a 32,000 year old Silene stenophylla was the first oldest specimen to have done that, and its regeneration was far more complicated than that of the bryophytes.

Catherine hopes that this discovery may help stimulate future work and researches on bryophytes, which actually aren't really a topic of research interest among the botanists today.

"These guys are really adept in extreme environments," La Farge said. Further studies may help scientists get an idea about the biological developments in extraterrestrial environments and different planets such as Mars.

Moss has already been taken up in the space to see if it could adapt to a micro-gravitational environment. "Maybe astronauts would want to take bryophytes to other planets to see if they would grow and how they could modify extraterrestrial landscapes," La Farge added.

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