By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters
The Michael Crichton book “Jurassic Park” and the movie based on the best-seller presented what might happen if scientists were able to clone extinct dinosaurs, bringing them back to life. While nothing like that is possible at this time — a good thing when you recall the mayhem the dinos caused in the world Crichton conjured up — sometimes scientists surprise themselves in breathing new life into old organisms.
One example of some success in what’s sometimes called “resurrection ecology” comes from a small island that lies off Antarctica. The place is called Signy Island. It’s one of the South Orkney Islands. Signy experiences short summers (during our northern hemisphere winters), but long winters during much of the year characterize the place. The local environment is too harsh to support trees: instead, the land is carpeted by thick beds of moss.
Peter Convey, a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, has worked on the island for some 25 years. He recently described the carpet of moss to The New York Times.
“It’s just like a big, green, spongy expanse,” he said.
But only the top layer of the moss is a growing mass of vegetation. The deeper layers don’t get sunlight, so they turn brown. In time, they freeze and join the permafrost that is the core of the island. That frozen moss has been building up in place for thousands of years.
In their short summer field seasons, Convey and colleagues have drilled down through the carpet of moss and into the permafrost. In the cores they removed, they found shoots of moss within the permafrost and even down in gravel layers. Generally, plants break down when they become permafrost, but something different seemed to be happening with the moss shoots.
Convey and his co-workers wondered if the ancient moss might be able to grow again.
“It was just kite-flying,” he said of his idea to a reporter from The New York Times.
The researchers took a core of the permafrost and put it near a lamp in a laboratory. They also misted it with water. In just a few weeks, they were rewarded with moss that was generating new, green growth, even from the zone three and a half feet below the surface.
As they have now reported in the journal Current Biology, they analyzed the moss for carbon-14, the radioactive or “hot” form of carbon that decays naturally over time at predictable rate. This gave the researchers a well-established method to test for how old the buried moss was. The moss they revived in the lab was more than 1,500 years old. In other words, it’s been dormant since around the year 500, but was able to spring back to active life when conditions were favorable. A pretty good trick!
But, obviously, it’s a far cry from reviving old moss to reviving animals like dinosaurs. Still, science yields some surprises now and then. Let’s not rule out anything when it comes to resurrection.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.