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Frozen in Time: Moss Buried Under a Glacier Grows Again

Canadian biologist Catherine La Farge spends a lot of time poking around the edge of a glacier on Ellesmere Island in the far northern reaches of her country. As the ice recedes some dozen feet a year now, she has collected scores of samples of what has been locked there for the four hundred years since the Little Ice Age—ancient mosses—and she recently accomplished what seems like science fiction: she brought some of it back to life.

From the National Post:

In glaciers, there are all kinds of fungi and bacteria, but no one has ever considered that land plants could survive being entombed underneath, she said.

“Now we have to think there may be populations of land plants that survived that freezing. It makes you wonder what’s under the big ice caps in Arctic and Antarctic and alpine glaciers.”

“And we have a four hundred-year-old lineage of genetic material,” she added.


Of course, plenty of other folks are working hard to discover what other carbon rich deposits lay trapped (but increasingly accessible) under the arctic ice. Perhaps other biological discoveries akin to La Farge's research may slow the pace of drilling in the arctic?

Mosses are unique in the botanical world because they reproduce by cell cloning—and all it takes is one good cell. She believes that even 5,000-year-old mosses trapped under the ice could be revived. Who cares? Well, she says that these are just the right species to send off to Mars to test for survival success of plants.

“We now talk about people … wanting to go to Mars and starting a whole new world out there. If you were going to send any kind of plant up there to see whether it could survive, bryophytes would probably be one of your key systems to try.”


These days, with the Mars One project and other folks tinkering with gardening schemes for the Red Planet, it will be interesting to see if her research will pick up steam. And who knows—as all that Arctic ice retreats, revealing unforeseen specimens, we may not be too far away from the promise of Encino Man.

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