Russian Scientists Clone Ancient Arctic Plant

Audie Cornish speaks with Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for the government of Yukon, about the cloning of an ancient Arctic plant by Russian scientists. He says he was skeptical at first, but is confident the experiment has been a success.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going back in time now, nearly 32,000 years. Scientists in Russia have cultivated a plant from seeds that were buried by squirrels in Ice Age Siberia. The narrow-leafed kampion is blooming again, a small plant with thin green leaves and delicate white flowers. It's believed to be the oldest plant ever grown from ancient tissue.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One person who believes the research is Grant Zazula. He investigates claims of ancient seeds with the Yukon paleontology program in White Horse, Canada. He joins us now to talk more about this latest discovery. Hi there, Grant.

DR. GRANT ZAZULA: How you doing?

CORNISH: Good. So start by telling us about sort of the period and the place where these seeds came from and how they've survived all these years.

ZAZULA: During the Ice Age when massive continental glaciers covered lots of northern North America and places in Europe, places like Siberia, Alaska and parts of Yukon were never covered by ice sheets, so this was a landscape that was inhabited by woolly mammoths and giant short-faced bears and scimitar cats - you know, these iconic animals of the Ice Age. And so, that part of Siberia that they're working on has this amazing record of the Ice Age and the life and the environments of the Ice Age.

CORNISH: And apparently squirrels, right? Because I'm reading from the research that these squirrel burrows had perfectly preserved seeds.

ZAZULA: Well, if you've seen the "Ice Age" cartoon movie, like, you know, most kids have, you know that little squirrel that's running around collecting seeds? It's kind of the star of the show. And a number of researchers across Siberia and North America here, too, we've been working on these records of Ice Age ground squirrels because they seem to have been these amazing little botanists. What they did during the Ice Age times, 30,000 years ago, they ran around and collected seeds and fruits and leaves and stuff. They carried them underground into their burrows and they used that for hibernation. And the remains of these nests and seeds are buried deeply in the permafrost.

CORNISH: So how exactly did these Russian scientists turn these seeds into an actual flower? And what's novel about the way they did it?

ZAZULA: Well, it's totally amazing actually. They first tried actually just growing the seed itself and it never worked. But they recognized within the fruit capsule, the seed capsule, there was viable cells of placenta, which is one of the other reproductive structures within a plant fruit. So, they took that placenta and they immersed it in a growth medium - sort of nutrients and sugars and stuff to help it grow - and sure enough it propagated.

CORNISH: How do we know that this claim is true? I know that you've investigated fake claims of ancient plants before, so what about this one sort of rings true you?

ZAZULA: Well the fact that they were able to radiocarbon date the remains from the nests. So, they did a radiocarbon test and sent it to a reliable lab and it came back 32,000 years, and which is consistent with other nests that are found at those sites. And the fact that they found it frozen, buried within this permafrost and took it immediately back to the lab frozen, there're sort of the conditions that we can consider to be reliable, I think, have been met. So I think the result is totally legit.

And I think it really pushes the boundaries now, you know, what can we do. And I know there's scientists at the moment that are trying to bring back ancient mammals, extinct mammals, like woolly mammoths. And in Russia, at these same sites...

CORNISH: Really? Could they start with a squirrel maybe...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ZAZULA: Well, the fact that they could get plants to work is a major step. The whole idea about bringing back woolly mammoths now, you know, it's all based on the assumption that we can have reproductive cells within mammoth carcasses. 'Cause in Siberia, you know, every couple of years, they seem to drag a dead woolly mammoth out of the permafrost that's 40,000 years old or something.

And, you know, now that we know that reproductive cells in plants can survive, well, maybe we'll find a mammoth carcass that has preserved sperm or eggs. So, that's basically the first indication that this is actually possible, to bring back ancient or extinct life in the permafrost.

CORNISH: Grant Zazula, he works with a Yukon paleontology program in Whitehorse, Canada.

Thanks so much, Grant.

ZAZULA: You're very welcome.

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