Frozen moss, found in Antarctica, comes back to life after 1,500 hundred years in deep freeze, according to British scientists. This marks the first time that any plant or animal has been restored to life after being frozen for 20 years or more.
The frozen moss in question was harvested from Signy Island, a small, glacier covered rock off the Antarctic peninsula, by a team of British scientists with the British Antarctic Survey. The moss bank in which the “Ichabod Crane” moss was found, was almost ten feet deep, with an upper layer of fresh, living moss growing over a foundation of mosses locked into the permafrost under the surface layer. The moss in the sample was obtained by drilling through the surface level to extract a core filled with mosses that were frozen between 1,500 and 1,600 years ago.
Scientists shipped the moss to Great Britain in frozen containers, where it was carefully incubated in a clean environment to make sure that whatever grew came from the old moss rather than from new spores. Writing in the journal Current Biology, study co-author Peter Convey, an ecologist with the British Survey team, explained that the fresh mosses were grown from the previously frozen rhizoids rather than from spores. Rhizoids are similar to the root systems in other plants, except that they merely serve to root the moss in place, because they do not absorb water or nutrients.Frozen spores from many species are known to revive when conditions are more favorable, but this is the first time that viable moss have regrown from rhizoids that have been frozen for more than 20 years.
Moss has been used for thousands of years by native people in colder regions around the world as an antiseptic wound covering, and, when dried, as insulation. Sphagnum moss is used commercially as a plant-growing medium by nurseries, where it is often used to raise orchids. Moss is the principal component in peat moss, which has been used for fuel in Scotland and Ireland for many centuries; peat is used as a fuel in Scotland to dry the malt used to make Scotch and Irish whiskeys.
Mosses grow best in any cool, damp, cloudy environment, but strains of moss have been found under almost all climatic conditions. Some moss grow only on rocks, others only on trees but they are considered a benign organism rather than a parasite. More than 12,000 species of moss have been identified. They do not flower, nor do they put out seeds. Instead, they reproduce by periodically releasing spores of themselves, or by colonization, the process in which the moss spreads by putting out new rhizoids,
Moss grows, like mushrooms, directly from spores that are released by the moss at different times during the plant’s life cycle. Classified as a “non-vascular” plant, moss appears to be very hardy, surviving short freezing periods very well compared to other plant life below tree level but this is the longest period that frozen moss has yet recovered from.
Moss is sometimes considered a weed, and other times a thing of beauty itself. There are moss gardens in various places around the world, notably in Japan and Washington State. Some “green” builders use moss as a living roofing material because, in the right environments, the thick moss beds are water proof, resilient, tough and self-healing. Because the rhizoids grip the surfaces of substrates rather than drilling into them, they can be applied to a very thin substrate material, making an ultra lightweight roof feasible.
While some mosses are now being used as a medium for the safer production of bio-pharmaceuticals, the most interesting applications for the special properties of the hardy vegetation may be in hinting the way toward more feasible cryogenic preservation of living organisms, with implications for extended deep space exploration. However, the fact that the mosses do not have a vascular system means that they are less susceptible to freezing damage and therefore are not analogous to vascular organisms.
The report that frozen moss comes back to life follows a recently released report indicating that long frozen viruses may also remain viable and revive themselves after 30,000 years on ice, raising concerns about releasing previously unknown diseases as global climate change thaws out frozen tundras.
By Alan M. Milner