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The moss core used in the current study was obtained from Signy Island, South Orkney Islands, maritime Antarctic.

The moss core used in the study was obtained from frozen ground on Signy Island near Antarctica.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER BOELEN

Jennifer Frazer

for National Geographic

Published March 17, 2014

On an island called Signy, amid the rolling waves off Antarctica, lies a moss bank as old as the Roman Empire.

Buried deep within its frozen, brown remains, scientists have revived a spark of life that has endured for well more than a thousand years.

The discovery made by researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Reading, Berkshire, U.K., pushes back by many centuries the time span over which frozen ancient plants are able survive, to be revived by nothing more complex than exposure to light.

"It's basically the first record of anything regenerating of that sort of age," said the survey's Peter Convey, co-author of the report in Current Biology. "There are records of microbes being pulled out of ice cores and permafrost, but nothing that's multicellular has ever been recorded to do it."

On the island, located about 850 miles southeast of South America's Cape Horn and a few hundred miles northeast of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, the researchers excised a 4.5-foot (1.4-meter) core from the moss bank. Though surrounded by icebergs, Signy Island lies at about the same latitude as Stockholm, Sweden, and St. Petersburg, Russia.

Photo of a scientist taking a core sample of moss.
A core extending from the upper surface of a moss bank to a depth of 54 inches (138 centimeters) was taken on Signy Island in 2003.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER BOELEN

Back at the lab, the scientists sliced the core lengthwise into 8-inch (20-centimeter) pieces and then crosswise in half. They placed the halves in sealed containers and exposed them to the light and temperature levels that would be found at the moss's home.

To their delight, the visibly intact remains of mosses deep in the core sprouted new green fuzz at various depths in about three to six weeks. They sampled the brown stems from which the new growth sprang and sent the samples to a carbon-dating lab.

The result? The regenerating stems closest to the core's bottom had last grown during the twilight of Rome, about A.D. 300-450.

Dana Bergstrom of the Australian Antarctic Division, who was not involved in this study, said she was amazed and delighted by the discovery. "Life emerging from the ice is usually confined to animated movies," she said in an email.

Core Concerns

Convey said he was fairly certain the growth did not come from contamination by wayward moss spores for several reasons: The team carefully wrapped the cores and cut them only with clean saws in the lab; the species of moss in the core does not produce spores in the Antarctic; and only one species was observed in the regrowth, the same one as in the core.

"Ultimately, it's circumstantial," Convey said, "[but] all the circumstantial evidence points to the regrowth being real, as distinct from some sort of contamination."

Ancient Revivals

This is not the oldest resurrection of a frozen plant in the laboratory, although it is perhaps the simplest. The regrowth of a flowering plant called Silene stenophylla from Siberian permafrost frozen about 31,800 years ago required complex laboratory gymnastics. The scientists cloned tissue from the seed and then grew it on special laboratory food.

And new growth has emerged from moss stems that were released from about 400 years of confinement under the Teardrop Glacier on Canada's Ellesmere Island.

When samples from these defrosted mosses were taken into the lab, ground up, and spread on potting soil on lab plates and watered, new mosses sprouted, radically changing ideas about the supposed tabula rasa left in the wake of retreating glaciers.

The new discovery pushes back the date mosses are known to have survived freezing further still and expands the feat to a new moss species.

"Their study and our study really does talk about the resilience of these primitive land plants and how they are very critical in reviving landscapes," said Catherine La Farge of Canada's University of Alberta, author of last year's Teardrop Glacier study.

"They can be revived. They can regenerate. And I think that's really cool."

She noted, however, that unlike the mosses released from Teardrop, the resurrected moss from Signy Island had been buried deeply in the ground, so this sort of regrowth from long-frozen material would not take place naturally unless it was exposed by catastrophe.

There is no telling how long mosses might ultimately prove able to survive under favorable deep-freeze conditions. La Farge has plans to push moss's regenerative record back even further and challenge S. stenophylla's title. Her team is planning a trip to Canada's Baffin Island to collect and attempt to regrow mosses more than 50,000 years old.

"I would not be surprised if they are able to regenerate," La Farge said. "It's built into their biology."

Follow Jennifer Frazer on Twitter.

13 comments
Cecilia L.
Cecilia L.

If it is located in the Antarctic, how can it be at the same latitude as Stockholm & St. Petersburg? This is quite confusing and surely a mistake. Seeing as this is National Geographic and many people reference this for educational purposes, I would hope that articles be read over for edits before being published.

Shawn Driscoll
Shawn Driscoll

Though surrounded by icebergs, Signy Island lies at about the same latitude as Stockholm, Sweden, and St. Petersburg, Russia.   Really????

Ashley Davis
Ashley Davis

Thanks! This was a great addition to my lesson today! Way to go Nat. Geo!

ken mason
ken mason

Rolling Icebergs gather moss

ken mason
ken mason

rolling iceburgs gather moss

Kyle Hineman
Kyle Hineman

That's incredible! Now the woolly mammoths will have something to eat.

Patrick Miller
Patrick Miller

"Though surrounded by icebergs, Signy Island lies at about the same latitude as Stockholm, Sweden, and St. Petersburg, Russia."


Swing and a miss! Wrong hemisphere!

Carlos Decourcy Lascoutx
Carlos Decourcy Lascoutx

...tlachichinoaxiuitl(Nauatl)=plant that grows between rock; let soak in water then drink to calm burning of mouth and stomach, also applied over sores and la sarna(sp)/mange,=

tla/chi/chin=lachin(N/particle)=lichen(Lat/Fr/E)=leikhen(Gk)=liquen(sp)=lichene(Ital)=

chichinoa xiuitl(N)=burning herb. cf., isbn 968-23-0573-x.

Andrew Roberts
Andrew Roberts

@Patrick Miller  Oh yeah and look at your latitude map- it starts at 0 on the equator and goes up on either side.  So both northern and Southern Hemisphere have a latitude of 60 degrees. It is not negative or positive it is just latitude 60 Degrees.


So I guess you Swing and Miss.

Andrew Roberts
Andrew Roberts

@Patrick Miller  Most of us knew that the author meant the equivalent latitude.  Would have taken a lot longer to explain that than state what he said.

Patrick Miller
Patrick Miller

@Andrew Roberts Yes the northern and southern hemisphere have a 60 degrees latitude. However, there is a designation (http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/LongitudeIntro.html) otherwise no one will know where/what you're talking about. Regardless, this sentence (in the context of the previous sentence) is rather confusing. To assume there's some similarity or connection between latitudes in different hemispheres is slightly misleading. It might be true but the sentence the way it is adds nothing of importance to the article.

Lonnie Brown
Lonnie Brown

@Patrick Miller @Andrew Roberts  Let's play nice, gents. Seems to me the writer is simply trying to provide an analog for her readers who live predominantly in the northern hemisphere. Latitude is literally defined as distance from the equator, and that seems to be her point.

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