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Zombie moss: Plant revives after 1,500 frozen years

Scientists pull a sample of moss out of an ancient deep-freeze and discover it was just waiting for a chance to grow again.

A moss core
This moss core was taken from near the surface. Esme Roads

It sounds like the next purposefully bad SyFy channel production: "Zombie moss! It came from beneath the Antarctic!" Researchers pulled up a sample of moss that had been sitting frozen for the last 1,500 years. Remarkably, it came back to life and started to grow again. This isn't quite the same as an unfrozen caveman lawyer, but it's pretty cool.

The moss sample came from a frozen core extracted from a moss bank in the Antarctic. It was sliced and placed in an incubator set to maintain normal light and temperature conditions geared for growth. A few weeks later, the sample began to grow. Carbon dating places the age of the moss at at least 1,530 years old.

"This experiment shows that multi-cellular organisms, plants in this case, can survive over far longer timescales than previously thought," says Peter Convey of the British Antarctic Survey. He surmises that this ability would help areas repopulate with plant growth following an Ice Age. "Although it would be a big jump from the current finding, this does raise the possibility of complex life forms surviving even longer periods once encased in permafrost or ice," he says, giving us the tiniest glimmer of hope that someday we'll revive a woolly mammoth.

The study of the moss, titled "Millenial timescale regeneration in a moss from Antartic," appears in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology. The paper's lead author Royce Longton says that moss growth "should be encouraged globally to act as a carbon sink and thus reduce global warming." It's certainly a lot hardier of a plant than anyone had previously realized.

Drilling for moss
Researchers drill a frozen moss core. Peter Boelen