American Elephants

Ground Squirrels Buried the Seeds 30,000 Years Ago. by The Elephant's Child

This pretty little plant, Sylene stenophylla, was grown from a seed from a tiny fruit burrowed into the dirt by an Arctic ground squirrel, to eat later if he could remember where he had buried it. The fruit quickly froze in the cold ground and was preserved in permafrost, waiting to grow into a full-fledged flowering plant for 30,000 years. Russian scientists have now regenerated this Pleistocene plant, transplanting it into a pot in a lab.  A year later, it grew and flowered and bore fruit.

This specimen is distinctly different from the modern-day version of Sylene stenophylla, or narrow-leafed Campion. The fruits were buried about 125 feet in undisturbed, never thawed permafrost sediments at roughly 19.4° F. Radiocarbon dating showed that the fruits were 31,800 years old, give-or-take about 300 years. Imagine. Seeds store the embryo of a new plant and store it in protective material until conditions are right for it to germinate.

The Russian team led by David Gilichinsky at the Russian Academy of Sciences grew a modern-day narrow-leafed Campion as a control so they could see the differences among the two generations — the Pleistocene version put out twice as many buds, but the modern version put out roots faster. The regenerated ancient seeds had a 100 percent germination rate, while the control plants had only an 86-90 percent germination.

Needless to say, scientists are interested in the permafrost as an important new gene pool. Other ancient ground squirrel burrows have been found in Yukon territory and in Alaska.”We consider it essential to continue permafrost studies in search of an ancient genetic pool, that of pre-existing life, which hypothetically has long since vanished from the Earth’s surface,” the authors write. The paper was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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