Have you ever wondered what grew on the planet before the Ice Age? There must have been plants of some description.
How else would the prehistoric creatures have survived? Whatever happened to these plants? Was it the overgrowth of plant life that pushed the planet into ice? Is it possible that some of the plants we enjoy today are remnants (perhaps even mutations) of pre-Ice Age plants?
How long do you think seeds can remain potent? A couple of years? How about 32,000 years? There is a plant whose seeds have been carbon-dated from the end of the Ice Age: the narrow-leafed campion or Silene stenophylla.
It’s a flowering plant that grows well in the arctic tundra, particularly in Siberia. One ancient squirrel must have scattered some seeds along the banks of the Kolyma River and they actually germinated and grew – 32,000 years later! Now is that cool or what?
If the seeds of this plant are still viable, there must be others — wouldn’t you think? So, how did we learn about these pre-Ice Age seeds? Researchers in the north have been studying the local plant life for some time now. And in places like Siberia and northern Canada, they have discovered some amazing things about the resiliency of some plants.
Until the discovery of 32,000-year-old seeds in the permafrost along the Kolyma River, the oldest known plant to germinate was a date palm grown from 2,000-year-old seeds. Pretty amazing.
The landscape was mostly grasslands, cold, and arid. Prehistoric plants have been grown from resurrected plant tissue that was frozen in the permafrost. Growing from prehistoric seeds similarly buried is a bit of an anomaly as seeds don’t generally survive extended periods of time.
However, perhaps the extremity of the freezing preserved them enough to make them more likely to germinate thousands of years later. As you can imagine, there must be hundreds of thousands of fruits and seeds buried by squirrel-like animals. How many of these will germinate and provide us with a better appreciation and understanding of what grew on Earth prior to this Ice Age?
It’s interesting to note that scientists have been working with huge burials of fruits and seeds for years, hoping to germinate prehistoric plants, like sedge, arctic dock, alpine bearberry, and others. Whilst some of these seeds did begin the germinating process, they faltered and died, probably not adapting well to the soil of the 21st century.
By using samples of the placental tissue of the S. stenophylla fruit — not so different from the white stuff one finds inside a pepper which holds the seeds — researchers were able to produce shoots in vitro which were then used to propagate plants. And these produced flowers — although the growing time was considerably longer than the S. stenophylla that currently grows on the banks of the Kolyma River today.
The result? This narrow-leafed plant with tiny flowers grown from pre-Ice Age seeds is now the oldest living multicellular organism on this planet. Pretty amazing! And there’s more. With this success, scientists are hopeful that they might be able to bring to life more pre-Ice Age plants in the future.
There are quite a few to consider, too. Since rodents stashed seeds and fruits in burrows, and these burrows were at the level of the permafrost which caused them to freeze almost instantaneously, there are more than 600,000 fruits and seeds to study.
Other than the novelty of bringing back to life something that was extinct, is there a purpose to this regeneration? Is this plant edible? Does it have medicinal benefits? Well, some plants of the Silene genus are edible including S. acaulis, S. dioica, and S. vulgaris. Why? Because they’re all campions with narrow leaves. Usually, the young leaves are boiled and served with butter. Can one assume the same for the S. stenophylla? Time will tell.
I can’t help but wonder if this wonderful regeneration is perhaps too much. Are we opening up a whole new Pandora’s box? What diseases came with these plants? Are they invasive to current species? Too many unanswered questions; too few answers. Whilst sites do advertise the sale of S. stenophylla seeds, these are from the plants currently growing, not the regenerated seeds. For now, the 32,000-year-old flower only grows in a laboratory.