Moss that last saw the light of day around the same time Rome was being ransacked by the Visigoths has begun to show signs of life, according to a report published in the journal Current Biology. After being frozen in ice for about 1,600 years, the ancient moss was taken from the Antarctic permafrost by members of the British Antarctic Survey and brought to a laboratory in Great Britain, where it has been revived.
According to an Associated Press report, ecologist Peter Convey of the British Antarctic Survey said that when it arrived at the laboratory, the moss looked black and dead, but then began to grow new shoots after scientists did nothing more than squirt it with distilled water over a three-week period. The moss’s revival is being touted as the longest known case of a plant or animal reanimating from a frozen limbo.
Earlier this month, findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) revealed the successful revival of a 30,000-year-old giant virus found in an ice core from the Siberian tundra. It is believed that the virus belongs to a new family of mega viruses that harm only amoebae.
Though the virus was revived in a laboratory, the lead author of the study, microbiologist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University in France, admits there is a fear that human activity in such a remote region may one day unleash an ancient virus that is harmful to humans and animals. However, the study’s co-author, Chantal Abergel, asserts that the core used in the study showed no signs of housing a potentially dangerous virus. Still, the study does bring up the question whether a virus can ever be fully eradicated.
With 1,600-year-old ancient moss and a 30,000-year-old virus recently being revived in a laboratory, the question of whether a human can ever be revived from a frozen state inevitably arises. If that were to happen, it almost certainly would not happen in the same way that organisms such as the arctic moss and Siberian virus were revived: An iceman would not be found in a block of ice in the Alps and thawed out.
Human cells are complex and mostly comprised of water, meaning that upon freezing, they expand and burst, destroying the cell. However, through cryonics, human embryos, ovaries, semen and blood have been frozen and successfully revived. Though to say that they were “frozen” is a misnomer. Cryonics, the low-temperature (321 degrees below zero) preservation of human tissue, uses cryoprotectants to protect cells from damage when they are quickly cooled with liquid nitrogen. Think of cryoprotectants as an anti-freeze that replaces the water in the cell.
Robert Ettinger introduced the world to the concept of cryonics in his 1962 book, The Prospect of Immortality. In 1976, Ettinger founded the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, MI, and became the 106th person to be cryogenically frozen at the institute following his death in 2011. Though cryogenically freezing an entire human body seems to work in theory, only time will tell whether a human can be successfully revived from it.
Ancient Antarctic moss revived in a laboratory after being frozen for 1,600 years is, at best, a curiosity. An ancient human revived in a laboratory after being frozen for 1,600 years would undoubtedly be fascinating.
By Scott Merrow