Rip Van Winkles

Rip Van Winkles

Specific environmental conditions are necessary for a plant seed to germinate; otherwise it will remain dormant. Just how long a seed can remain inactive has been the subject of much scientific research. Apparently the generative capacity of some seeds can be preserved in a dormant state much longer than might be suspected.

In 1967 scientists discovered the seeds of an Arctic tundra bush in a frozen lemming burrow. After applying radiometric dating procedures on the seeds, they discovered that the seeds had been lying in the burrow since the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. Yet when scientists placed them in conditions favorable for growth, the seeds began to germinate within forty—eight hours!

Another example of seeds with suppressed generative capability was discovered recently in Minnesota. Bacterial spores were embedded in muds lining Elk Lake in present—day Minnesota. Samples of the mud were collected in 1983 by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and taken to their laboratory in Denver for research. Radiometric dating of the muds placed the spores at about 7,500 years of age. At the lab the spores were separated from the mud and warmed from their frozen temperatures to surface air temperature.

The thawed—out spores were then placed in a nutrient—rich culture, where, to quote the scientists, "they grew like crazy." One of the scientists involved with this intricate bit of research offered a theory to explain, at least partially, the survival of such ancient bacteria. It was suggested that organisms such as these can survive because, when necessary, they can lower their rates of metabolism, thereby sustaining themselves until conditions again are conducive to growth.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth