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June 20, 2014

PETERS: Resurrection ecology revives ancient organism

The Michael Crichton book “Jurassic Park” and the movie based on the best-seller presented what might happen if scientists were able to clone extinct dinosaurs, bringing them back to life. While nothing like that is possible at this time -- a good thing when you recall the mayhem the dinos caused in the world Crichton conjured up — sometimes scientists surprise themselves in breathing new life into old organisms.

One example of some success in what’s sometimes called “resurrection ecology” comes from a small island that lies off Antarctica. The place is called Signy Island. It’s one of the South Orkney Islands. Signy experiences short summers (during our northern hemisphere winters), but long winters during much of the year characterize the place. The local environment is too harsh to support trees: instead, the land is carpeted by thick beds of moss.

Peter Convey, a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, has worked on the island for some 25 years. He recently described the carpet of moss to The New York Times.

“It’s just like a big, green, spongy expanse,” he said.

But only the top layer of the moss is a growing mass of vegetation. The deeper layers don’t get sunlight, so they turn brown. In time, they freeze and join the permafrost that is the core of the island. That frozen moss has been building up in place for thousands of years.

In their short summer field seasons, Convey and colleagues have drilled down through the carpet of moss and into the permafrost. In the cores they removed, they found shoots of moss within the permafrost and even down in gravel layers. Generally, plants break down when they become permafrost, but something different seemed to be happening with the moss shoots.

Convey and his co-workers wondered if the ancient moss might be able to grow again.

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