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Discovery: 400-year-old frozen moss brought back to life

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 28th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

It all started with a daily stroll. University of Alberta Professor Catherine La Farge, camping out at the toe of the Teardrop glacier on Ellesmere Island in Canada's North, was walking along the edge of some ice. She noticed some of the moss had a greenish tinge. The startling burst of color had her thinking - could there be life in that old moss after all?

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - La Farge had an unprecedented view of what was entombed under the ice for 400 years such as old rocks, mud, and her specialty, ancient moss.

In the laboratory, La Farge found that the frozen moss was able to revive itself though it had been buried since the Little Ice Age (1550-1850). Her study is now shaking up some basic assumptions about land plants.

Scientists had previously assumed that plant material frozen under an Arctic glacier, the plant material was dead.

La Farge brought samples back to the lab in 2009. On closer examination, she noticed a tiny green stem. "Either it kept its color under the glacier or it grew after the moss emerged 400 years later," she said.

La Farge then ground up the old plant material, put it in Petri dishes full of potting soil and set it in the grow. La Farge and graduate student Krista Williams along with master's student David Wilkie watched for signs of life.

In about four to six weeks, tiny green filaments or strands called protonema began to grow. A dish was almost full of green moss from cells frozen for 400 years several months later. Of 24 samples potted, seven produced new growth.

"It was just incredible," La Farge said, whose work has given scientists another window into the basic life systems of plants.

"Now we have Little Ice Age moss material that produced juvenile plants."

there are all kinds of fungi and bacteria in glaciers. No one had previously considered that land plants could survive being entombed underneath, she said. "Now we have to think there may be populations of land plants that survived that freezing. It makes you wonder what's under the big ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctic and alpine glaciers," La Farge said. "And we have a 400-year-old lineage of genetic material," she added.

Mosses are especially hardy and ancient - 400 million years old, she said. Mosses played a key role in moving life from water to land in evolution. They evolved from green algae and paved the way for other land plants.

Mosses reproduce by cloning their cells so "all you need is even one cell to survive.

"If we could find some moss that went back 1,000 years or 5,000 years we may find some material that could be revived. But it all depends on the specific way the material is buried and the conditions," she says.

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