Plant and virus life revived after 30,000 years in the Siberian permafrost

Two years ago we heard about plants being grown from seeds and pods preserved for 30,000 years in the Siberian permafrost. And now comes the news that a giant virus of that time has also been revived and is still capable of infecting other life.

This would have been about 1,500 generations ago. 30,000 years ago the Neanderthals had just disappeared, mammoths, woolly rhinoceros and long-horned bison roamed in Siberia. Modern humans had reached Europe but had not reached the Americas. It was at the peak of the last glacial and the spread of agriculture was still some 15,000 years in the future.

A prehistoric plant resurrected from frozen tissue. S. Yashina et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA

1. Wild flower blooms again after 30,000 years on ice 

During the Ice Age, Earth’s northern reaches were covered by chilly, arid grasslands roamed by mammoths, woolly rhinoceros and long-horned bison. That ecosystem, known by palaeontologists as the mammoth steppe, vanished about 13,000 years ago. It has no modern counterpart.

Yet one of its plants has reportedly been resurrected by a team of scientists who tapped a treasure trove of fruits and seeds, buried some 30,000 years ago by ground squirrels and preserved in the permafrost 

The plant would be by far the most ancient ever revived; the previous record holder was a date palm grown from seeds roughly 2,000 years old. ….. . took samples of placental tissue from S. stenophylla fruits. The plant placenta — an example of which is the white matter inside a bell pepper — gives rise to and holds the seeds. The tissue produced shoots when it was cultivated in vitro, and the scientists used these to propagate more plants. They are the oldest living multicellular organisms on Earth, the team says.

The plants have already blossomed to produce fertile seeds, which were grown into a second generation of fertile plants. During propagation, the ancient form of the wild flower produced more buds but was slower to put out roots than modern S. stenophylla, which is found along the banks of the Kolyma. This suggests that the original has a distinct phenotype, adapted to the extreme environment of the Ice Age.

(S. Yashina et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1118386109; 2012).

2. Giant virus resurrected from 30,000-year-old ice

In what seems like a plot straight out of a low-budget science-fiction film, scientists have revived a giant virus that was buried in Siberian ice for 30,000 years — and it is still infectious. Its targets, fortunately, are amoebae… The newly thawed virus is the biggest one ever found. At 1.5 micrometres long, it is comparable in size to a small bacterium. Evolutionary biologists Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel, the husband-and-wife team at Aix-Marseille University in France who led the work, named it Pithovirus sibericum, inspired by the Greek word ‘pithos’ for the large container used by the ancient Greeks to store wine and food. “We’re French, so we had to put wine in the story,” says Claverie. The results are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Legendre, M. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1320670111(2014).

Under a microscope, Pithovirus appears as a thick-walled oval with an opening at one end, much like the Pandoraviruses. But despite their similar shapes, Abergel notes that “they are totally different viruses”. …. Pithovirus has a ‘cork’ with a honeycomb structure capping its opening (see electron-microscope image). It copies itself by building replication ‘factories’ in its host’s cytoplasm, rather than by taking over the nucleus, as most viruses do. Only one-third of its proteins bear any similarity to those of other viruses. And, to the team’s surprise, its genome is much smaller than those of the Pandoraviruses, despite its larger size. ….

While “cloning” of ancient and extinct species is not really possible, it is not too fanciful to imagine that ancient DNA and modern hosts could give rise to creatures having characteristics beneficial during an ice age. And perhaps that could be of some interest when this interglacial ends – as it must – and we do enter into another glacial period.

Cold resistant, woolly cattle and well trained sabre-tooth tigers to mange the wandering herds perhaps. Maybe we might then even want some extra Neanderthal DNA injected into us!! Finally a use for biodiversity!

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