After Thousands of Years, Earth's Frozen Life Forms Are Waking Up

After Thousands of Years, Earth's Frozen Life Forms Are Waking Up

What's happening in Siberia's thawing permafrost and Greenland's melting glaciers sounds borderline supernatural. A ncient viruses, bacteria, plants, and even animals have been cryogenically frozen there for millennia—and now, they are waking up.

Cryofreezing is best known for its appearances in science fiction, but self-styled "resurrection ecologists" are now showing the world just how real it is.

In 2012, scientists germinated flowers from a handful of 32,000 year old seeds excavated from the Siberian tundra. Last year, researchers hatched 700-year old eggs from the bottom of a Minnesota lake, while another team resuscitated an Antarctic moss that had been frozen since the time of King Arthur. Bacteria, however, are the uncontested masters of cryogenics—one bug, at least, was alive and kicking after 8 million years of suspended animation.

Fear not—while awakening a million-year old plague sounds like a great scifi plot, most of these critters are totally harmless. But they're fascinating for another reason: They're a window into Earth's past; one that may offer clues to how species will cope with change in the future. Here's what the emerging field of resurrection ecology—which is as badass as it sounds—may allow scientists to do.

Evolutionary biologists are accustomed to thinking about deep time —events that occurred millions, even billions of years in Earth's past. Using fossils, rocks and chemical signatures, scientists have built beautifully detailed theories about what our ancient world looked like. Still, if there's one thing any dino researcher would kill for, it'd be the chance to see one of her long-lost subjects in the flesh.

For the first time now, biologists can do just that—study live organisms that hail from a different era. Sure, bacteria and mosses are a far cry from a T-rex, but being able to poke and prod any creature that crawled about a million years ago is still astounding. As scientists described in the 2013 resurrection ecology manifesto, cryogenically frozen specimens are like an "evolutionary time machine." They offer researchers a new way to study the past, but also, the chance to observe evolution in real time.

What would it mean to see evolution in action? Going back to dinosaurs for a moment, imagine you're a paleontologist studying the evolution of feathers. It'd sure be nice if you could clone some dinos, rear them in your Jurassic Park-sized lab, expose them to a range of different environmental conditions—evolutionary biologists call these "selective pressures"—and re-create the "scenario" that caused plumage to evolve. Clearly, this particular experiment is preposterous and will never happen.

But with microbes, which multiply in minutes and pack by the billions into a petri dish, researchers can now do something similar.

By Maddie Stone, Gizmodo


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