Headlines should generally never be trusted, and this story seems to weird to be true. But let’s look at it anyway.
In one from the archives, researchers in Russia and from Princeton University found nematodes in Siberian permafrost. These glacial core samples were taken from 30 metres below the surface of a permafrost deposit near the banks of the Kolyma River. Radiocarbon dating showed that the compacted soil and plant remains within the sample are 32,000 years old. A second group of worms was isolated from a 3.5-metre-deep sample of a deposit near the Alazeya River, dated to 41,700 years – give or take 1,400 – before present.
That’s the time of the megafauna: woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and diprotodon here in Australia.
Nematodes can withstand a variety of extreme conditions that would kill many other organisms. Researchers trying to determine how several species native to the Arctic and Antarctic can survive cycles of freezing and thawing discovered in the early 2000s that the worms turn to a cold climate adaptation, wherein they rapidly excrete the water in their cells as temperatures approach freezing.
This process, called cryoprotective dehydration, prevents the tissue destruction that occurs when water molecules inside cells expand during crystallization and rupture cell walls.
Laboratory experiments had also proved that nematodes can recover from frozen dormancy periods lasting up to 39 years but no-one had ever isolated ancient specimens and revived them.
After removing the worms from the glacial samples, they were placed in 20°C culture with agar and E. coli bacteria as food.
After being defrosted, the nematodes showed signs of life and started moving and eating.
Questions remained about whether these were modern nematodes, but the ground in this region only thaws to a depth of roughly 80 centimetres each year and hasn’t thawed to more than 1.5 metres in about 100,000 years, so the scientists argue that there is no way the organisms discovered represent modern nematodes that infiltrated the tightly packed layers of permafrost. Subsequent research also seems to have confirmed these were ancient.
I talked about this with Danny Hoyland on West Bremer Radio on 16 April 2022. Listen each week: Saturday 7.40 am, West Bremer Radio.