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Rock doc: Ancient plants make a comeback

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From page A6 | April 30, 2012 |

The Ice Age is my favorite bit of Earth history, a time when mammoths, giant beavers and saber tooth tigers roamed the world.

I was so impressed by the Ice Age when I was a child, reading about it in the school library, that I recognized the book I had studied decades later when I stumbled across it as an adult. Being devoted to books, I happily bought a copy and perused it immediately. Imagine my pleasure, then, about the recent news that an Ice Age flowering plant some 32,000 years old has been regenerated by scientists and brought back to life.

The tale revolves around an industrious Pleistocene rodent in Siberia that took fruit from a plant botanists call Silene stenophylla and buried it deeply underground. The rodent’s burrow was sealed shut by windblown dirt. The animal’s treasure trove was frozen into the permafrost and remained frozen as the millennia unfolded.

Recently scientists from the Russian Academy of Science research institute in Pushchino took a scraping of the fruit and nurtured it in a bath of nutrients. Their efforts were rewarded when the plant not only grew, but produced healthy seeds that sprouted.

Coming back to life is not a small feat for an organism that was frozen for 32 millennia!

“It is remarkable that under deep freeze, fruit tissues…can remain viable for such a long time,” said Jane Shen-Miller, a biologist at UCLA. Quoted in Science News she went on to say: “This is like regenerating a dinosaur from tissues of an ancient egg.”

Well, it’s not exactly like that, but it’s understandable scientists are excited by the result coaxed from the frozen fruit of Silene stenophylla.

When the little Siberian plant grew up, by the way, it showed signs it is mildly different from modern Silene stenophylla. It’s petals are narrower and closer together than today’s examples of the plant. So either the species has changed a bit in the past 32,000 years or, perhaps, what the ancient rodent buried might have been a related, but different species of a plant that has since gone extinct.

The Siberian plant isn’t the only botanical specimen that’s been impressively reborn. A few years ago Israeli researchers interested in alternative medicine helped coax a 2,000 year-old date palm into sprouting.

The Judean date palm was used in ancient times for food, shelter and more. There are references to the plant in the Bible and the Koran. But the plant disappeared from the region around the year 500 AD.

The ancient date palm seed came from an excavation of Masada. You might remember that locality as the ancient fortress where Jews held off Romans in a long siege and finally killed themselves rather surrender. The fortress fell in the year A.D. 73, and the radiocarbon date of the palm seed dates the material to about 2,000 years ago.

As National Geographic reported, a Hebrew University archeologist took the samples of the date palm seeds from the ruins of Masada. For years they sat in the desk drawer of a botanical archeologist at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. Then the seeds were transferred to a center for natural medicine — because date palms were once used for medicinal purposes.

From there the increasingly well-traveled seeds went to desert agricultural expert Elaine Solowey. She soaked the seeds in warm water, bathed them in nutrients and planting them in soil. One of the seeds spouted and a plant nicknamed “Methuselah” came into the world.

To me, the resurrection of ancient botanical material is good news for the work of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. That’s the institution in which scientists try to preserve seeds from species of plants from all around the world. The idea is to keep botanical species going, come what may in terms of variables like climate change that could wipe out a plant. Both the Methuselah date palm and the plant buried long ago by the Siberian rodent give me hope that the Svalbard effort will keep viable materials preserved for a very long time, indeed.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Planet Rock Doc, a collection of Peters’ columns, is available at bookstores or from the publisher at wsupress.wsu.edu or 1-800-354-7360. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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