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Moss springs back to life after 1,500 years in deep freeze

New study offers snapshot of changing world

It may look like grass, but it's not — it's moss.

It may look like grass, but it’s not — it’s moss. bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Some hardy species of moss may be able to regenerate after surviving for thousands of years buried deep beneath polar ice. Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and Reading University said their study for the first time shows that some plants have the ability to survive century to millennial scale ice ages.

The research may help scientists better project how polar regions will change in coming decades as ice sheets retreat. The study is the first to show that mosses can survive century to millennial scale ice ages.

“The team took cores of moss from deep in a frozen moss bank in the Antarctic,” said co-author Professor Peter Convey, with the British Antarctic Survey. “This moss would already have been at least decades old when it was first frozen. They sliced the frozen moss cores very carefully, keeping them free from contamination, and placed them in an incubator at a normal growth temperature and light level,” Convey said.

After only a few weeks, the moss began to grow. Using carbon dating, the team identified the moss to be at least 1,530 years of age, and possibly even older, at the depth where the new growth was seen, he added.

The team took cores of moss from deep in a frozen moss bank in the Antarctic. This moss would already have been at least decades old when it was first frozen. They sliced the frozen moss cores very carefully, keeping them free from contamination, and placed them in an incubator at a normal growth temperature and light level. After only a few weeks, the moss began to grow. Using carbon dating, the team identified the moss to be at least 1,530 years of age, and possibly even older, at the depth where the new growth was seen.

“This experiment shows that multi-cellular organisms, plants in this case, can survive over far longer timescales than previously thought,” Convey said. These mosses, a key part of the ecosystem, could survive century to millennial periods of ice advance, such as the Little Ice Age in Europe.

“If they can survive in this way, then recolonisation following an ice age, once the ice retreats, would be a lot easier than migrating trans-oceanic distances from warmer regions. It also maintains diversity in an area that would otherwise be wiped clean of life by the ice advance.

“Although it would be a big jump from the current finding, this does raise the possibility of complex life forms surviving even longer periods once encased in permafrost or ice.”

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