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Researchers Awaken Ancient Lifeforms Exposed By Thawing Ice Caps and Permafrost

“Researchers in a warming Arctic are discovering organisms, frozen and presumed dead for millennia, that can bear life anew,” reports the Washington Post:

These ice age zombies range from simple bacteria to multicellular animals, and their endurance is prompting scientists to revise their understanding of what it means to survive… Mosses have forged a tougher path. They desiccate when temperatures plummet, sidestepping the potential hazard of ice forming in their tissues. And if parts of the plant do sustain damage, certain cells can divide and differentiate into all the various tissue types that comprise a complete moss, similar to stem cells in human embryos… Thanks to these adaptations, mosses are more likely than other plants to survive long-term freezing, said Peter Convey, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey. On the heels of evolutionary biologist Catherine La Farge’s Canadian moss revival, Convey’s team announced it had awakened a 1,500-year-old moss buried more than three feet underground in the Antarctic permafrost…

While the elderly mosses discovered by La Farge and Convey are remarkable, the clique of ice age survivors extends well beyond this one group of plants… A microbiologist at the University of Tennessee, Tatiana Vishnivetskaya drills deep into the Siberian permafrost to map the web of single-celled organisms that flourished ice ages ago. She has coaxed million-year-old bacteria back to life on a petri dish. They look “very similar to bacteria you can find in cold environments (today),” she said. But last year, Vishnivetskaya’s team announced an “accidental finding” — one with a brain and nervous system — that shattered scientists’ understanding of extreme endurance.

As usual, the researchers were seeking singled-celled organisms, the only life-forms thought to be viable after millennia locked in the permafrost. They placed the frozen material on petri dishes in their room-temperature lab and noticed something strange. Hulking among the puny bacteria and amoebae were long, segmented worms complete with a head at one end and anus at the other — nematodes… She estimated one nematode to be 41,000 years old — by far the oldest living animal ever discovered. This very worm dwelled in the soil beneath Neanderthals’ feet and had lived to meet modern-day humans in Vishnivetskaya’s high-tech laboratory.

The article also quotes Gaetan Borgonie, a nematode researcher at Extreme Life Isyensya in Gentbrugge, Belgium, “who believes these feats of survival may portend life on other planets.”

He calls the newly-discovered endurance of nematodes “very good news for the solar system.”


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