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Russian Scientists Grow Ice-Age Flower

  • Claire Bigg

A silene stenophylla grown from tissue of fossil fruit found in a squirrel burrow that had been stuck in Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years.

A silene stenophylla grown from tissue of fossil fruit found in a squirrel burrow that had been stuck in Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years.

It looks like an ordinary wildflower, with white petals sitting atop a slender stem.

The silene stenophylla, however, is by far the most ancient living plant on Earth. A team of Russian scientists were able to resurrect entire specimens from seeds buried by squirrels in permafrost more than 30,000 years ago.

The plants are even fertile, producing flowers and viable seeds.

This achievement is a major breakthrough that could pave the way for the revival of other ancient plant species.

"It shows that permafrost acts as a natural cryochamber," Svetlana Yashina, one of the researchers who led the experiment, told RFE/RL.

"If more research is conducted in this sphere, we will be able to extract a lot more viable material."

The research team recovered the seeds and fruit after exploring dozens of fossilized squirrel burrows in the permafrost of Siberia's remote Yakutia region -- a grueling and costly enterprise for the cash-strapped scientists.

The seeds had been preserved, fully isolated from the surface, under some 30 meters of ice at an average temperature of minus 7 degrees Celsius.

In their lab outside Moscow, the scientists then tried to grow plants from the recovered seeds.

When that failed, they extracted the placental tissues of the plant's fruit and transferred them into pots.

The result, Yashina says, is a plant that "is a little different from its modern version, for example by the shape of its petals. So we can observe a kind of micro-evolution here."

Yashina and her colleagues published their findings in the February 21 issue of the U.S. journal, "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


     

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