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Polish botanists discover 2 million-year-old moss

Polish scientists from the Institute of Botany of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) discovered a species of moss which survived 2 million years in Antarctica. Their research is looking to help in forecasting the response of biodiversity to climate change.

“We have clearly shown that the populations of this species (Syntrichia sarconeurum) survived during the glacial peaks,” Dr Michał Ronikier from the PAN’s Institute of Botany said. The head of the team studying the history of Antarctic mosses added that his group of scientists have combined classical research competencies with that of modern genetic research.

Moss is the main component of the Antarctic vegetation cover. It has long been known that they have a great physiological ability to survive the stress associated with low temperatures and the dryness of the environment. Despite their delicate structure, they can remain alive for hundreds of years.

According to Ronikier, the research may help in understanding moss’ ability to survive over extended periods in Antarctica, and above all to reveal more insight into the Antarctic continent. Today, the area of ice-free land in Antarctica is estimated at about 0.5 percent and during the glacial period it had been even smaller.

“Until recently, the hypothesis of the complete extinction of life in Antarctica during the historical glacial periods prevailed, but research on invertebrates gave hope that even during the glacial maxima when climatic conditions were the most extreme, certain organisms have found a place and a way to survive,” Ronikier explains.

The team of scientists from the Institute of Botany of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Kraków utilised molecular biogeography in their research. They worked on plant samples in the Institute’s herbarium which includes dried specimens of mosses collected during scientific expeditions in the first half of the 20th century.

“Now that we have molecular biology at our disposal, the scope of use of such collections is significantly expanding and thus opens up fascinating prospects. We are able to read with increasing accuracy the genetic material of dried mosses, degraded as a result of the passage of time” Ronikier said.

Survive the extremes

Syntrichia sarconeurum is one of the few moss species found in almost all accessible land areas of Antarctica. Based on molecular dating, the research team determined that this moss may have been present in Antarctica through a number of glacial periods over two million years ago. It survived the global climate oscillations – warming and cooling.

“We have clearly demonstrated that the populations of this species persisted in the most difficult environmental conditions. This is evidenced by the separate and isolated genetic lines that characterise continental populations,” Ronikier explained.

According to the scientists, the research is an important contribution to reconstructing the detailed history of moss populations. They will also help make predictions about how biodiversity will respond to climate change.

“It is crucial to understand how Antarctic biodiversity in areas particularly vulnerable to climate change has formed and survived. By learning about the historical dynamics of the biodiversity of these particularly sensitive regions of the Earth, we have a chance to forecast what the future of biodiversity in these regions may be,” Roniker said.

The research was carried out as part of a project funded by the National Science Centre.

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