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After years of The Simpsons predicting the future it’s now Futurama’s time to shine as scientists melted ice which was thousands of years old and found frozen worms which came back to life.
Admittedly in Futurama it was a human who came back to life rather than worms, but close enough.
Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, a microbiologist at the University of Tennessee, and her team accidentally stumbled upon the little creatures as part of their attempts to map the web of single-celled organisms which flourished in the Siberian permafrost.
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The Washington Post reports in the past Vishnivetskaya has managed to coax million-year-old bacteria back to life on a petri dish, explaining they look ‘very similar to bacteria you can find in cold environments’ today.
Last year, the microbiologist and her team were going about their usual business seeking singled-celled organisms, which were the only life-forms thought to be viable after millennia locked in the permafrost.
However, when they placed their discoveries on petri dishes in their room-temperature lab they noticed some much bigger organisms; the worms.
Admittedly the creatures were only around half a millimetre long, but compared to the minuscule bacteria and amoebae they were pretty huge.
Incredibly the worms, known as nematodes, wriggled back to life after being defrosted. It’s not clear how long they were frozen for but Vishnivetskaya estimated one nematode to be 41,000 years old – by far the oldest living creature ever discovered.
The little bugs are the most complex creatures ever known to have been revived after a lengthy deep freeze.
The discovery is certainly remarkable but experts admitted nematodes are actually well-equipped to endure millennia locked in permafrost.
Gaetan Borgonie, a nematode researcher at Extreme Life Isyensya in Gentbrugge, Belgium, commented:
These buggers survive just about everything.
He added nematodes are ubiquitous across Earth’s diverse habitats. According to the Washington Post the researcher has actually found communities teeming with worms two miles below Earth’s surface, in South African mine shafts with scant oxygen and scalding heat.
Nematodes are roundworms — unlike flatworms, they have a tubular digestive system. They're a diverse group of tiny animals that are found in just about every ecosystem, including salt water, fresh water, and soils. Many species are parasites (including to plants and people).
— Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (@JacquelynGill) July 10, 2019
When the worms get caught in deteriorating environmental conditions, they enter a state of suspended animation, known as the dauer stage, in which they stop feeding and grow a protective coating around themselves, which shields them from extreme conditions.
Vishnivetskaya is not sure whether the nematodes her team discovered survived by being in the dauer stage but she speculated they could theoretically survive indefinitely if frozen stably.
They may last any number of years if their cells stay intact.
However, Ice Age ecologist Dr Jacquelyn Gill has expressed caution over the findings, pointing out nematodes can be found in tap water and may actually have been modern worms which contaminated the samples:
Nematodes can survive in harsh conditions, including freezing. There's a record of Antarctic nematodes surviving below-freezing temperatures for 25 years. But that's very different from tens of thousands of years frozen solid.
— Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (@JacquelynGill) July 10, 2019
Finding a means of surviving deteriorating environmental conditions sounds an all too familiar prospect for humanity, so long may the research into how these nematodes survive continue!
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