A French team of scientists from the University of Lille fell upon an unlikely find when they gathered remnants of plant material buried deep into the permafrost of Antarctica in 2013. To their surprise, the recovered plant material contained intact seeds, but it is only months later that a team of paleobotanists took up the challenge of reviving the 200 million-year old palm tree and, to their own disbelief, succeeded.
It is not the first time an extinct plant has been brought back to life since a specimen of Silene stenophylla, a plant that has been extinct for over 30,000 years, was just brought back into existence in 2012 by Russian scientists, but it is definitely the boldest attempt as the unknown species of palm tree is thought to be of the Jurassic period, possibly estimated to be 200 million-years old.
It is also a mystery that tropical plants could have managed to grow on the Antarctica continent 200 million-years ago and the experiment could bring to light vital information about atmospheric conditions on Earth at the time, such as levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2).
The unknown plant specimen is thought to be of the Cycad family, a close relative to our modern Cycas rumphii, which could stand a lengthy 200 meter tall and 6 meters wide according to physical evidence gathered from fossilized remains
“Several prior tests were inconclusive at first because levels of CO2 were not proper for the micropropagation of the plant tissues. Current conditions on Earth are apparently extremely different from atmospheric conditions of the Jurassic period” explains lead team researcher Jean-Marcel DeKoninck.
“We’ve had to evaluate through trial and error what the proper dosage of oxygen, carbon dioxide and other elements were needed to make the plants thrive. Even though we have successfully brought back to life some strains of the specimens, it is not certain that we have reproduced exactly the conditions present at the time” he admits.
Understanding the plants biological needs could give scientists precious information about atmospheric conditions on Earth in the Jurassic period.
The plant material that has been through the process of micropropagation, a method that rapidly multiplies stock plant material to produce a large number of progeny plants using modern plant tissue culture methods, have undergone various trials before the team has successfully been able to breathe the gift of life into the specimens.
“The present atmospheric conditions on Earth do not permit these once extinct species to live out of an artificial context. It is still a mystery to modern science how such species could attain such gigantic proportions compared to their modern relatives. Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels present at the time might have played a major part in the development of gigantic species of fauna and flora of the Jurassic period” explains PhD team researcher Jeanne Mancelot.
The research team is hoping to finance another trip to Antarctica in 2015-2016 which could reveal other remnants of extinct flora deep beneath the permafrost layer.
“It is a race against time as global warming, which is heating the permafrost with greater intensity every day, could damage potential specimens by bringing them prematurely in contact with the air, which could destroy specimens of great significance to further scientific research and which have the potential of increasing dramatically our understanding of ancient atmospheric conditions on Earth” concludes Dr DeKoninck.