Could Frozen Seeds Save the Future? Scientists Bring a 32,000-year-old Seed Back to Life
Far away on the remote island of Spitsbergen in the Artic Svalbard archipelago lies humanity’s fail-safe storage of seeds. With the threat of natural and man-made disasters looming in the future, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located securely halfway between Norway and the North Pole (approx. 810 miles (1,300 km) from the North Pole). The Norwegian initiative, which receives substantial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, currently stores more than 880,000 seed samples at -0.4 °F (-18 °C), a temperature that is maintained thanks to the permafrost surrounding the vault. The program began in 1984, meaning that the oldest samples are now 33 years old. Yet, scientists believe that it could take decades, even centuries, for the planet to recover from the type of disaster that would render a seed vault necessary. Even if Svalbard’s seeds survive, would they work? A team of Russian scientists may have proven that not only can seeds survive millennia in the cold, but also that once reawakened the plants will thrive.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault Under Construction | by Global Crop Diversity Trust. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Past Attempts at Seed Resurrection
Until recently, the oldest seed brought back to life was a sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) seed discovered in a dry lakebed in northeastern China in 1995. Radiocarbon dating showed the seed to be 1,300 years old.
Hindu goddess Lakshmi holding and standing on a lotus. (Public Domain)
Then, in 2005, a new plant took the title of oldest viable seed: a Judean date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). It was discovered in an ancient jar during the excavations of Herod’s Palace on Masada in Israel. Radiocarbon dating showed that it was about 2,000 years old. By 2008, the revived seed had grown into a four foot, seven inch (1.4 meter) tall tree that was named Methuselah after the longest-living person in the Bible. In 2011, it flowered and experts estimate that by 2022 it may bear fruit.
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Judean date palm. (Public Domain)
All of this does not bode well for mankind’s survival. Most obviously, waiting 17 years for fruit is problematic. In addition, these two seeds were discovered in very dry, warm, and sheltered conditions. They seemed to have survived by chance. What does this say about the frozen seeds stored in Norway? The Svalbard Vault is sheltered and dry (it is constructed 390 feet (120 meters) inside of a sandstone mountain that is 430 feet (130 meters) above sea level, a location that will remain above water even if the ice caps melt) but unlike the other two sites, this one is cold. Past research has shown with poppy seeds kept at 19.4 °F (-7 °C), “after only 160 years just 2 percent of the seeds will be able to germinate,” according to Dr. Alastair Murdoch, an expert on seed viability at the University of Reading in England (Wade, 2012). However, recent research in Siberia may have just upended these previously held assumptions.
A team of Russian researchers was examining an exposed bank of the Kolyma River located deep in the frozen tundra of northeast Siberia in order to better understand ancient soil composition. This area was once thronged with wooly mammoths and rhinoceroses. During their examinations, they discovered 70 storage borrows believed to have been created by an Ice Age ground squirrel(s). Somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 seeds and fruits were discovered. Radiocarbon dating shows that these seeds are 31,800 years old, plus or minus 300 years.
20,000-year-old Arctic ground squirrel mummy. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
There were both mature and immature seeds found but many had been damaged (most likely by the squirrels) and therefore did not germinate while in the burrow. Soon after being dug, “the burrows were sealed with windblown earth, buried under 125 feet [38 meters] of sediment and permanently frozen at minus 7 degrees Celsius” (Kaufman, 2012). Many of the seeds were for the narrow-leafed campion (Silene stenophylla). While still on site, “the Russian researchers tried to germinate the campion seeds, but failed. They then took cells from the placenta, the organ in the fruit that produces the seeds. They thawed out the cells and grew them in culture dishes into whole plants” (Wade, 2012). From the three placentas, the Russians grew 36 plants. At first, the plants appeared the same as modern day campions; however, when they flowered, they displayed narrower, more splayed out petals. After a year, the plants created seeds of their own.
Silene dioica, family of the Silene stenophylla. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Hopes to Find More Seeds
On February 21, 2012, a paper written by team leaders Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences research center at Pushchino, Moscow appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Unfortunately, on February 18, 2012 Gilichinsky died of a heart attack. The team has plans to continue exploring sites in Siberia and hopes to find even older borrows and seeds.
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Meanwhile, the results of their paper are being contested. Much of the skepticism rests on the radiocarbon dating of the seeds. “It’s all resting on that — if there’s something wrong there it can all fall part,” said Eske Willerslev, an expert on ancient DNA at the University of Copenhagen (Wade, 2012).
Perforations on permafrost in Crater Lake. David is at the side of the drill with a hood. Deception Island, January 2009. (propolar.org)
“It’s beyond the bounds of what we’d expect,” said Alastair Murdoch, an expert on seed viability at the University of Reading in England (Wade, 2012).
“This is an amazing breakthrough,” said Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Program at Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada. “I have no doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim.” (Wade, 2012).
“I can’t see any intrinsic fault in the article,” said botanist Peter Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. “Though it’s such an extraordinary report that of course you’d want to repeat it.” (Kaufman, 2012).
Attempts to recreate the experiment will certainly be conducted. In the meantime, many humanitarians are cheered by the prospect that frozen seeds can be revived even after thousands of years.
“Any insight gained on seeds which have been frozen and how to thaw them and sprout them is very valuable,” said Elaine Solowey, a botanist at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel (Kaufman, 2012).
If researchers can determine exactly what conditions enabled the seeds to remain viable for 32,000 years, they may be able to find a way to preserve them for even longer.
The Crop Trust. "Svalbard Global Seed Vault." Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Crop Trust, 2017. Web. https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/
Kaufman, Rachel. "32,000-Year-Old Plant Brought Back to Life-Oldest Yet." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 23 Feb. 2012. Web. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/02/120221-oldest-seeds-regenerated-plants-science/
Wade, Nicholas. "Dead for 32,000 Years, an Arctic Plant Is Revived." The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Feb. 2012. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/21/science/new-life-from-an-arctic-flower-that-died-32000-years-ago.html
Yashina, S., S. Gubin, S. Maksimovich, A. Yashina, E. Gakhova, and D. Gilichinsky. "Regeneration of Whole Fertile Plants from 30,000-y-old Fruit Tissue Buried in Siberian Permafrost." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.10 (2012): 4008-013. Web.