32,000-Year-Old Plant Cloned; What's Next, Woolly Mammoths?


It's a big week for really old stuff. Nearly simultaneous with the announcement that a 300-million-year-old forest has been discovered in China, Russian scientists touted an arctic flower grown from 31,800-year-old tissue.

The fruit of the narrow-leafed campion had been placed by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow, in northeastern Siberia. Soon after, the burrow was one of many along the banks of the lower Kolyma river that were buried under 125 feet of sediment and frozen at minus-seven degrees Celsius (19 degrees Farenheit).

The report in the New York Times expresses tentative credence, citing "a firm radiocarbon date." Yet scientists will want more proof. Alastair Murdoch, an expert on seed viability at the University of Reading in England, told the Times that "It’s beyond the bounds of what we’d expect." He cited as an example poppy seeds: if kept at minus 7 degrees Celsius for 160 years, 98% of them will not be able to germinate.

The 31,800-year-old narrow-leafed campion would shatter the existing record for plants grown from old sources, until now held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2,000 years old recovered from Israel.

But Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for the government of Yukon, is a believer. In an interview with NPR, he explained his belief based on "the fact that they were able to radiocarbon date the remains from the nests. So, they did a radiocarbon test and sent it to a reliable lab and it came back 32,000 years, and which is consistent with other nests that are found at those sites. And the fact that they found it frozen, buried within this permafrost and took it immediately back to the lab frozen, there're sort of the conditions that we can consider to be reliable, I think, have been met."

Zazula also addressed a peculiar fantasy of armchair scientists, that of cloning a woolly mammoth from frozen tissue. "In Siberia, you know, every couple of years, they seem to drag a dead woolly mammoth out of the permafrost that's 40,000 years old or something," he said. "Well, maybe we'll find a mammoth carcass that has preserved sperm or eggs. So, that's basically the first indication that this is actually possible, to bring back ancient or extinct life in the permafrost."