Siberian Worms Frozen Over 30,000 Years Ago Show Signs of Life

An aerial view shows thermokarst lakes outside the town of Chersky in northeast Siberia August 28, 2007. Scientists have found worms frozen in the regional permafrost that are showing signs of life. Dmitry Solovyov/Reuters

Scientists claim to have found signs of life in two worms extracted from patches of Siberia's permafrost dating back 30,000-40,000 years ago.

The discovery was made by a group of Russian scientists from four different institutions in Moscow, working in collaboration with Princeton University. The study's aim was to find out if multicellular organisms could be revived after an extended period of laying dormant in extreme cold.

For that purpose the group scoured Russia's frigid northeast, collecting 300 samples of the layer of perpetually frozen soil beneath the surface, known as permafrost.

After collecting enough permafrost deposits from different ages and areas in Siberia, the group returned to the lab and attempted to revive organisms inside the deposits. Spotting organisms called soil nematodes inside the deposits, scientists tracked their progress after being extracted from their prehistoric, frozen abodes and eventually noticed very positive results.

"We have obtained the first data demonstrating the capability of multicellular organisms for longterm cryobiosis in permafrost deposits of the Arctic," the report from the scientists published in the Doklady Biological Sciences journal stated. "The duration of natural cryopreservation of the nematodes corresponds to the age of the deposits, 30,000-40,000 years."

Of all the samples, two separately-explored deposits yielded creatures with vital signs. Scientists found one of the nematodes in the permafrost inside a squirrel burrow dug into the surface of the Duvanny Yar outcrop, near Siberia's Kolyma River. This worm-like creature was preserved in an environment dated at around 32,000 years old.

The older of the two viable nematodes was located near Alazeya River, in an environment dated back to 41,700 years ago. The nematodes, identified as a Rhabditida and Plectida, are both believed to be female specimens of the species.

The process of reviving them from their millenia-long slumber began in a Petri dish, where scientists placed all the collected permafrost, broken up into 1-2 gram samples, which is less than a tenth of an ounce, and then stored them at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit). The group then began to cultivate the samples at 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit), checking for vital signs among anything that had burrowed into the prehistoric permafrost and remained stunned but undead.

In two of the samples, the nematodes began to move and then eat the nutrients that scientists fed them. The group behind the project feel that their findings now could have important implications for many fields.

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"It is obvious that this ability suggests that the Pleistocene nematodes have some adaptive mechanisms that may be of scientific and practical importance for the related fields of science, such as cryomedicine, cryobiology, and astrobiology," the scientists argue.

The implications of surviving microorganisms in Earth's permafrost are not entirely positive, however. A recent article by the Scientific American magazine has warned that climate change and the thaw of permafrost could result in malevolent organisms, carrying diseases from millenia past, return to our environment.