Extending the reach of green thumbs, a team of Russian scientists has revived a flowering plant from a 31,000-year-old seed found squirreled away in Siberian permafrost.
The Silene stenophylla plant flourished at a time when Mammoths roamed its arctic homeland and dwindling numbers of Neaderthals still lived in Europe.
A team from the Russian Academy of Sciences grew its descendant from cells they uncovered 125 feet below the surface in an ancient burrow. They are publishing their findings in an American journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
But this blast from the past has already gone viral in modern media, such as an ABC News report here.
The researchers are crediting hard-working squirrels for their dramatic discovery. They believe the material they recovered was among fruit and leaves the animals carried to a burrow near a river in northeastern Siberia.
“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,” said Stanislav Gubin, one of the authors of the study from the Russian academy's Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems in Soil.
The team sought out such burrows in the permafrost, soil that remains frozen for extended periods, specifically looking to retrieve "an ancient genetic pool, that of pre-existing life, which hypothetically has long-vanished from the earth's surface," wrote his colleague Svetlana Yashina.
Even with global temperatures rising, permafrost still covers an estimated 20 percent of the planet's land surface, potentially preserving vast store of viable material. But the team had to work carefully to regenerate the cells, cloning and propagating them on the micro level in order to produce a plant.
While radiocarbon dating put the cells' age at 31,800 years, give or take 300, their offspring took only a year to grow in a normal pot, blossom with white flowers, bear fruit and drop a new generation of seeds.
That makes the previous record-holder a babe by comparison, according to National Geographic. A team in Jerusalem was able to germinate a seed from a 2,000-year-old plant, an ancestor of the modern date palm. Those stories can be viewed here.
At least some scientists have greeted the report cautiously, since previous claims of regenerating seeds found in pyramids or a Yukon burrow turned out to be from modern rather than ancient plants.
At their moment of apparent triumph, the Russian team also suffered a personal loss. Their leader, David Gilichinsky, was reported to have died over the weekend in a New York Times story that can be read here.
Still, the Russians told ABC that their finding emphasizes the importance of efforts to retrieve and store seeds from the more than 2 million types of plants that humans currently eat. Since 2008, more than 100 countries have contributed specimens to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.