Here’s proof that life after death does exist — if you happen to be 1,500-year-old moss found beneath the Antarctic permafrost. Prof. Peter Convey, one of the British Antarctic Survey scientists behind this recent discovery, said that “it puts back the confirmed length of time that plant life can survive from two decades to over 1,500 years.”
The finding follows on the news earlier this month of a group of French scientists reviving a 30,000-year-old virus in an icy region of Siberia.
Metro: With first the Siberian virus and now the Antarctic moss, is there any potential danger with this kind of unearthing?
Convey: The sort of doomsday scenario of some strange unknown disease leaping out and getting everybody has a vanishingly small probability to it.
Just the stuff of sci-fi movies. How did the moss survive for over 1,500 years?
In principle, it was stuck in a very long-term deep freeze. It’s a bit like the “best before” food analogy: there are some things that must definitely be eaten before a date because there are potential health dangers. Whereas other things should ideally be eaten before the specified date, but it doesn’t actually pose any threat. It’s the same with organisms that survive being frozen (cryptobiosis): once the plant is in a stress-tolerant state (i.e. ‘frozen’) they’re just in a declining curve of survival.
How long could moss plants survive for?
The bank we drilled and took a core from was 1.5 meters deep and at the base, the moss is probably 2,000 years, so I would speculate that the moss at the deepest bank – 5 meters or so – is 5,000 years old.
Could that be recovered?
Yes, because other than being a little deeper, it’s the same species and has the same permafrost conditions. If we can get a core, I don’t see any reason why plant life shouldn’t be recovered from that.
Could animals or larger species be discovered?
More carefully-designed studies could conceivably find animals alive. We know that small invertebrates can do well. Fewer large invertebrates are capable of survival and even fewer large vertebrates (species with a backbone) have that ability. However, cold tolerant frogs that live in northern Canada can withstand ice crystals forming both internally and externally. But you can’t go bigger than that kind of vertebrate.