Field of Science

The Zombie Mosses Rise from Beneath a Glacier

Mosses that were buried beneath a glacier for the last 400 years were able to resume growth. Fortunately these resurrected mosses will not be out to eat us. These findings were reported last week in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a Canadian research group led by Dr. Catherine La Farge. (As a side note we are academically related, she and my PhD advisor Dr. Bernard Goffinet were both graduate students of Dr. Dale Vitt. Does that make her my academic Aunt?)

ResearchBlogging.orgLa Farge, C., Williams, K., & England, J. (2013). Regeneration of Little Ice Age bryophytes emerging from a polar glacier with implications of totipotency in extreme environments Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1304199110

This is an amazing story of the ability of mosses to survive freezing in extreme environments. It is well-known that the leafy gametophytes and even the sporophytes of some mosses can survive the winter beneath the snow pack. These findings push our thinking about how long mosses can survive frozen far beyond what they have been shown to previously tolerate. That means that cryopreservation of mosses for 100s of years is not a farfetched idea for some species!

Figure 5b from La Farge et al 2013
Showing a region of new moss growth growing
from plants frozen since the last Little Ice Age (LIA). 

The authors bring up a number of interesting aspects to the research. Particularly I think that it really changes how I think about the colonization of plants in exposed areas post-glaciation. Not all of the plants may need to arrive from afar or recolonize from glacial refugia. Some of the bryophytes may just regrow from frozen but not dead plants.   

Figure 6c from La Farge et al 2013
Showing a petri dish full of mosses regenerated
from frozen plants.

If you are interested in reading more about the findings and hearing an interview with Dr. La Farge check out the following pieces. (There are many more online. These are just a few of the ones that I read and liked.)

Audio Reports

30 Second Science - A very short piece summarizing the major findings. 

NPR Talk of the Nation Science Friday - An approximately 12 min long interview with the lead author.

Written Articles

The Edmonton Journal - 400-year-old frozen moss brought back to life in scientist’s lab  - Biologists Revive 400-Year-Old Plants

BBC - Centuries-old frozen plants revived

Discovery News - Zombie Plants Return from the Dead

CBC - Includes an interesting thought about sending bryophytes to Mars.

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