Global warming threatens to kill off all manner of plant and animal species, but what will it also bring back? A team of researchers from the University of Alberta visiting the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to explore regional changes caused by global warming have found that some plants once buried by glaciers for hundreds of years have now been exposed. The researchers took samples of these plants back to their lab, where they were able to successfully regenerate them and create new growth.
The results of their research are pending publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers, led by Catherine La Farge, found the plants in the shadows of Teardrop Glacier on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, which grew during the Little Ice Age (1550-1850) and has since retreated more than 650 feet. They collected samples of exposed, dead plant matter representing four kinds of bryophytes — the types of plants that include moss and lichen. Some of the samples they found had developed green stems, indicating that they might be growing. The samples were carbon dated, revealing them to be between 400 and 615 years old.
After noting the possible wild regrowth, the scientists took samples home to see if they could grow in laboratory conditions. Despite their age, 11 of the 24 cultures brought back to the lab began to grow.
As La Farge explained to The Register, "We know that bryophytes can remain dormant for many years (for example, in deserts) and then are reactivated, but nobody expected them to rejuvenate after nearly 400 years beneath a glacier. These simple, efficient plants, which have been around for more than 400 million years, have evolved a unique biology for optimal resilience. Any bryophyte cell can reprogram itself to initiate the development of an entire new plant."
La Farge and her fellow researchers say this new discovery indicates that polar ecosystems where glaciers retreat can be first colonized by bryophytes rather than the previously held belief that that task could be accomplished by seeds and spores, which would need to be carried to the areas by winds or birds.