Frozen Worms Come Back to Life After Years in Permafrost

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Frozen Worms Come Back to Life After Years in Permafrost

Russian scientists has a recent discovery about roundworms that is frozen in permafrost. / Photo by: Andrei Metelev via 123rf


A recent breakthrough discovery from Russian scientists had successfully revived a pair of roundworms after a roughly 42, 000 years being frozen in permafrost.


Beneath the Permafrost

Two prehistoric worms had been brought back to life at the Institute of Physico-Chemical and Biological Problems of Soil Science in Moscow. After a group of 300 worms which were then defrosted, these nematodes showed signs of life - wriggling and even eating.

According to the Siberian Times, these worms which were believed to be both females were cultivated then thawed in Petri dishes at about a staggering temperature of  20 degrees Celsius, or 68 degrees Fahrenheit, for several weeks. These were presumably the oldest living organisms found on the planet.

Lying below the Earth’s surface, the worms were under permafrost for a very long time.

Permafrost, which is basically frozen soil had contained these little critters for thousands of years.

With all this discovery, the researchers were excited as to how these underground organisms reveal prospect scientific breakthroughs in the field of cryogenics and cryobiology. And if it could possibly be applied to us, humans.

One of the worms was found 100 feet beneath an ancient burrow near Kolyma river just around Pleistocene Park, a site where an extinct woolly mammoth is about to be recreated through an experimental project.  

The other one was found near Alazeya River roughly about 11.5 feet below the ground.

The samples obtained from Siberia were isolated and were approximately known to age at about 32,000 and 41,700 years old respectively through radiocarbon dating according to a study from Doklady Biological Sciences. The frozen worms were found through shards of glacial ice deposits contained from decomposed plant remains.


Permafrost contained the worms for thousands of years. / Photo by: Zhang YuanGeng via 123rf


Advances in Organisms Living in Low Temperatures

Nematodes are known for their ability to sustain under long periods of time in unfavorable conditions, such as living in the soil where moisture, humidity and temperature vary inconsistently.

Cryobiology is the study of living things which are found in extremely low temperatures.

“Our data demonstrate the ability of multicellular organisms to survive long-term cryobiosis under the conditions of natural cryoconservation,” Russian researchers said.

“It is obvious that this ability that these Pleistocene nematodes have might suggest some adaptive mechanisms that may be part of scientific and practical importance for the related fields of science, such as cryomedicine, cryobiology, and astrobiology,” they further added.

The research was done in collaboration with teams from Russian institutions as well as Princeton University in New Jersey.

The Russian institutions that are involved in the pioneering research were: The Institute of Physico-Chemical and Biological Problems of Soil Science; Moscow State University; Pertsov White Sea Biological Station, part of Moscow State University; and the Higher School of Economics in Moscow including the Department of Geosciences from Princeton University.


The researchers said that nematodes are known for their ability to sustain under long periods of time in unfavorable conditions, such as living in the soil where moisture, humidity and temperature vary inconsistently. / Photo by: pogonici via 123rf


Worms Underground

The environment especially the ground where we live in contains lots of microorganisms and invertebrates particularly nematodes. These segmented, multicellular animals feed on bacteria, fecal matter, algae, decomposed materials - almost anything that happens to be found in the dirt.

These creatures are an essential part of the ecosystem. Undergoing through decomposition makes the ecological niche well-balanced by the help of these worms. 

The joint Princeton-Moscow University study showed the very first case of recovery from long-term cryobiosis in permafrost by multicellular organisms in a purely natural environment.

Just as how these worms were able to survive all these years being frozen, future experiments still need to be conducted to analyze them completely and how these might affect the preservation of other species as well.

These ‘lowly creatures’ play a vital part and are valued for their contribution to the natural soil ecosystem.


Soil Ecosystems

Worms are sometimes known as ‘ecosystem engineers’ because they take part in modifying the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil underground. These modifications can influence the habitat and the numerous activities of other organisms within the soil.

These slimy creatures cultivate and help the environment through the following:


Recycling organic material: They help decompose organic material along with bacteria and fungi. This include dung, dead leaves, and other fecal matter that is found in the soil.

Increasing nutrient availability: This happens in two ways: by incorporating organic materials into the soil and by unlocking the nutrients held within dead organisms and plant matter. Nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen become more readily available to plants after being digested and excreted by worms.

Improving soil structure: They open up small spaces, known as pores, within the soil thus altering its physical appearance. Their burrowing can lead to an increase in water infiltration rates of up to 10 times the original amount. This brings water and soluble nutrients down to plant roots. Burrowing also improves soil aeration (important for both plants and other organisms living in the soil) and enhances plant root penetration.

Providing food for predators: Being part of food webs and prey to animals especially birds is one function of worms. They provide the essential food source to nourish the ecological balance between ecosystems.





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