Ancient moss, buried since the Little Ice Age (1550-1850) at a location known as the ‘toe’ of the Teardrop Glacier, Ellesmere Island, Canada, has found new life thanks to a researcher out for a walk. The frozen moss, an ancient bryophyte, was found by University of Alberta biologist Dr. Catherine La Farge, during her summer studies. “I looked down and was amazed to see something green peeping out amid the dirt and rocks,” said La Farge.
A specialist in the study of frozen mosses, La Farge said the ice at the toe of the Teardrop Glacier has been melting by as much as four meters a year, unmasking plants thought long dead.
She brought samples from the ancient moss to her lab in Edmonton in 2009 and went to work, grinding up the old plants, putting the ground material in potting soil in dishes and then into growing chambers. La Farge and her grad students played a watch and wait game and by week four they saw evidence of life. After several months, one of the dishes was filled with green moss.
“We didn’t think they could survive,” said La Farge. “The glaciers in our climate grind up soil. The glacier there was like a blanket, that once lifted revealed plants somewhat untouched. The bryophytes were not dead, we discovered, but dormant." La Farge added that the area that yielded the ancient bryophytes is very rugged, characterized by polar nights and fierce winds. “Things can only grow there two to three months a year. That they survived the conditions is very amazing.
“Don’t try this with the leaf of an oak tree,” added La Farge. “Mosses are special in what they can do. A severed oak leaf wouldn’t grow to a tree—but bryophytes can regrow from a stem, a leaf, a cell.”
La Farge, Director and Curator, Cryptogamic Herbarium, Dept. of Biological Sciences, U. of Alberta, Edmonton, published her work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in May 2013 to much acclaim. Her work not only gave new life to ancient genetic material, it demonstrated new information about the life system of plants and the hardy nature of land plants in frozen areas. “Our samples had been buried some 400 years,” said La Farge. “It will be interesting to see as glaciers recede what other plants emerge. There could be new genetic reservoirs to discover in areas now covered by ice,” said La Farge. La Farge reports that resilience of the bryophyte cells could be important in medical research as well as to researchers exploring survival beyond earth.
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