How to

18 November 2016

Resurrection Ecology: Ancient Frozen Life Awakens from Millennia-long Slumber

Remnants of a past world, bygone bacteria, viruses, plants and animals, are awakening from cryogenic sleep. That’s not to say that prehistoric dinosaurs are reanimating, but age-old microbes are. These life forms have been plunged through time and plopped into the twenty-first century. Earth’s previous inhabitants, thousands of years old, have survived suspended in Siberia’s permafrost and Greenland’s glaciers, and resurrection ecologists are all in a tizzy about it.

In 2012, a handful of 32,000 year-old seeds found in an excavation of the Siberian tundra were used to germinate flowers. Just last year, researchers hatched 700 year-old eggs found at the bottom of a lake in Minnesota, and another team found a way to revive Antarctic moss frozen since the time of King Arthur. More astonishing than that, a single bacterium was discovered to be alive after 8 million years of cryogenic animation. 

The mere existence of such life stirs up dregs of the past in the most satisfying way.  Having a physical specimen originating from a long-gone era draws a visible line from present day to Earth’s past.  Evolutionary biologists, those who examine how evolutionary processes produced diversity of life, have had no choice but to use fossils, rocks, and surviving genetic materials to paint a picture of what Earth was once like. With the discovery of cryogenically frozen specimen and a healthy helping of resurrection ecology, the study of live organisms is possible. Granted, these specimens are rather ordinary – moss, bacteria, and age-old viruses – but their reanimation allows for a bit of scientific play.

Let’s say a moss specimen from another era has been physically manifested in a lab. This allows for comparison to moss today, cataloguing the differences between the extinct species and its living descendant. Focusing on these characteristics will offer clues as to how current life will evolve to suit the future. Exposing the extinct specimen to a set of conditions can prompt it through observable evolution in real-time. Granted, this assumes that observable evolution is possible in a short period of time and that the lab is well-versed on the conditions leading up to it. However, this promising idea shows how valuable resurrection ecology can be.

Future Applications

Aside from the historical and evolutionary value, resurrection ecology has the potential to aid currently endangered species. The most basic explanation of endangerment must mention genetic variation. When a species has a small number of potential matches from which to produce offspring, it is limited to that pool of genes, offering little diversity. Without a large pool of genes to draw from a species cannot evolve to suit changing environmental variables. Genetic variation is integral to evolution.

Conservation geneticists, those who use genetic methods to conserve biodiversity, have figured a way to use ancient samples to restore diversity in modern species. Cryogenically-preserved tissue samples matching today’s endangered species have the potential to reintroduce lost genetic diversity. Revive and Restore, a self-described genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species, is testing out this concept on the black footed ferret.

Cryogenic sleep, something of a novelty at the present, has been proven possible. Resurrection ecology posits that “extinction is, sometimes, merely a life stage.” If a life form has surviving, dormant DNA preserved, reanimation is possible. In light of this fairly recent discovery, scientists have started to develop cryobanks. Covered by Maddie Stone of Gizmodo, this global network of cryobanks is meant to store the genes for species of today. 

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).