Arts, Culture & Media

Canadian Scientist Regenerates Long Frozen Arctic Plants


Eastern edge of the Tear Drop Glacier, Sverdrup Pass, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut (Photo: Catherine La Farge)

Our Geo Quiz takes us the the most northern part of the Canadian Arctic. Specifically, we headed to a large island that's part of the Canadian territory of Nunavut.

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Cold as it may be during the winter, it's a part of the world where glaciers are melting and ice sheets are breaking up due to climate change.

One glacier there is called the Tear Drop glacier. As it has melted, some interesting plant life was exposed.

The plants were dormant under the ice for at least 400 years. Now scientists are trying to regenerate the Arctic plants.

Some interesting plants buried by a glacier 400 years ago are seeing the light of day thanks to a Canadian biologist.

Catherine La Farge, a biologist at the University of Alberta, has been studying these plants that can survive in harsh polar environments and that have been buried under ice for the past four centuries on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada.

Her research is published in the PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here's the abstract of her research paper:

"Catherine La Farge and colleagues inventoried bryophytes-nonvascular plants such as mosses and liverworts-uncovered by the retreat of the Teardrop Glacier on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. When the authors examined the bryophytes they found that the plants' structure was well preserved by the glacier. Some of the plants showed signs of regrowth, including green lateral branches or stems, even among plants uncovered less than a year earlier. The authors used radiocarbon dating to confirm that the exhumed bryophytes were entombed during the Little Ice Age (1550-1850 AD). The authors then took fragments of the plants, cultured them in the laboratory, and tested their capacity to regrow. The authors grew 11 cultures from seven specimens, representing four distinct taxa. These results suggest that bryophytes, representing the earliest lineages of land plants, may be far more resilient than previously thought, and likely contribute to the establishment, colonization, and maintenance of polar ecosystems."

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    Emergent growth of moss (Aulacomnium turgidum) from beneath the Tear Drop Glacier, Sverdrup Pass, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. (Photo: Catherine La Farge)

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    In vitro culture of Aulacomnium turgidum regenerated from emergent Little Ice Age plants beneath the Tear Drop Glacier, Sverdrup Pass, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. (Photo: Catherine La Farge)