At WiseGEEK, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
Many creatures are capable of enduring harsh conditions for extended periods of time, but none can compare to the hardiness of roundworms. A recent study published in the journal PLOS Genetics described how scientists revived prehistoric roundworms that had been in a state of suspended animation for 46,000 years in the Siberian permafrost.
The roundworms, found within a fossilized squirrel burrow near the Kolyma River, were determined to be members of a previously unidentified species, now known as Panagrolaimus kolymaensis. The researchers were able to determine the age of the worms by carbon-dating plant material also found in the permafrost.
So how did these prehistoric roundworms survive for such a prolonged period? The roundworms, also known as nematodes, appear to have achieved this astonishing feat by entering a state of inactivity called “cryptobiosis.” During cryptobiosis, metabolic activity is reduced to an extremely low level while the organism waits for environmental conditions to improve. Therefore, while essentially suspended in time, roundworms can exist in a harsh environment that would otherwise be lethal.
Previously, the longest known instance of nematodes in a state of cryptobiosis had been a period of just 39 years, making these prehistoric roundworms a truly miraculous find.
Though some in the scientific community have questioned whether there could be errors in the age calculations of the nematodes, others have praised the findings, which are especially incredible as nematodes are multicellular organisms. The research could even have implications for how to preserve human cells in the distant future.
Behold, the nematode:
- Nematodes are incredibly abundant. For every human on Earth, there are a whopping 60 billion nematodes (approximately).
- Housed in a small metal container, nematodes of the species Caenorhabditis elegans that were being used for scientific research survived the atmospheric breakup of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.
- Though many roundworm species are microscopic, the largest nematode ever discovered was found in the placenta of a sperm whale. It measured around 28 feet (8.4 m) long with a diameter of just under one inch (2.5 cm).
- There is evidence of other organisms surviving for exceptionally long timeframes, though none with the relative complexity of roundworms. According to past studies, a lotus seed successfully germinated after spending over 1,000 years in a dry lake bed, while a bacterial spore survived in amber for between 25 million and 40 million years.