A mossy miracle

The Teardrop Glacier in northern Canada is melting rapidly, but that’s not all bad news, at least not for researchers who have revived a group of mosses that date back 400 to 600 years.
Catherine La Farge, a biology professor at the University of Alberta,  came across newly exposed moss on one of her many visits to the glacier, which contains plants from before the Little Ice Age that took place between 1550 and 1850. Rather than write the plants off as dead—as others had before her—she decided to take them back to the lab and try to revive them. La Farge, who curates the university’s cryptogamic herbarium, noticed that the bryophyte material that makes up these plants had a greenish tint, and she knew that in the right conditions—a cold and dry environment like the one found under a glacier—the chlorophyll could be preserved. After more than six weeks, the bryophytes began to grow and show their green sprouts in the lab.
“You can get any cell of a bryophyte to reproduce into something new. … The cell of a bryophyte is equivalent to a stem cell,” La Farge explains. Bryophytes can revive themselves after long periods of time when presented with more favorable growth conditions. Previous studies suggested that reviving the ecosystem and vegetation that lived before the Little Ice Age was virtually impossible, but this discovery suggests the contrary.
This summer, La Farge and her team plan to test the viability of some 50,000-year-old bryophytes from Baffin Island, the largest island in the Arctic Archipelago. If all goes according to plan, ancient glacial ecosystems thought lost could be revived, thanks to the resiliency of bryophytes.
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