It was an ancient squirrel’s buried treasure: a burrow containing fruit and seeds stuck in the Siberian permafrost. From that centuries-old frozen material, a team of Russian scientists resurrected an entire plant. Now scientists in Austria hope to go one step further. They want to decode the secret of the plant’s genetic makeup.
In 2012, Russian scientists were studying fossilized animal burrows along Siberia’s Kolyma River.
The area’s river mud often solidified around pockets of ice. These ice orbs created a kind of natural freezing chamber—similar to what scientists use to freeze other types of organic material. Inside hundreds of these dens, they found frozen seeds and plants trapped underground.
“The squirrels dug the frozen ground to build their burrows, which are about the size of a soccer ball, putting in hay first and then animal fur for a perfect storage chamber,” says Stanislav Gubin, one of the authors of the Russian study.
At first, the scientists tried growing the frozen seeds. That didn’t work. Then they extracted genetic tissue from the plant matter. The plant material sprouted. The new plant produced seeds and white flowers.
The reborn plant—Silene stenophylla—is the oldest plant ever to be revived from ancient seeds. Its modern version still grows in Siberia.
The plant material’s survival in ice for thousands of years could open the way to the possible rebirth of other species.
At the time, Gubin hoped the Russians would be the first to find some frozen animal tissue to use for regeneration. So far, that hope hasn’t become reality.
This yearning for new life, rebirth, and resurrection here on Earth is a gift from a gracious Creator. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) Humans naturally desire something beyond the dead here and now, and nature itself points to a living hereafter. We can be thankful knowing that God promises to fulfill that longing. He will one day create a new Earth, as it was in the beginning! (Revelation 21)
Today, scientists at Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences are seeking to decode the ancient plant’s genome, or DNA. University professor Margit Laimer’s team wants to learn how the genetic material stayed alive for thousands of years and what part freezing temperatures played in its preservation.
“We hope we can find changes in genes that allow plants to adapt to very dry or very cold or very hot conditions,” Laimer says, “and to use this knowledge, this new piece of knowledge that we can create for new plant improvement.”