A group of scientists, including Russian researchers from the Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Science of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and German scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, managed to thaw the worms, and astonishingly, they came back to life.
In reality, these worms were not dead; they were in a state of cryptobiosis, where all biological processes in their bodies were suspended.
The dating of the layer in which these worms were found indicated that it was approximately 46 thousand years old, making it a record for the survival of a complex living creature and worthy of consideration for the Guinness Book of Records.
The discovered worms belonged to a species entirely unknown to scientists from the nematode family Panagrolaimidae, believed to have long since died out. In honor of the Kolyma River, the scientists named the worms Panagrolaimus kolymaensis.
After the thawed worms “resurrected,” the scientists provided them with water and food, and under their supervision, the worm population lived in the laboratory for some time. Remarkably, the worms not only consumed the provided resources but also successfully reproduced, giving birth to more than a hundred generations.
The secret behind their rapid reproduction is that the worms are parthenogenetic, meaning they do not divide into males and females but reproduce independently.
Professor Teimuras Kurtzchalia from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics expressed astonishment at the worms’ resilience, noting that the tiny creature could potentially make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for staying in suspended animation much longer than anyone thought possible.
He compared the situation to the tale of Sleeping Beauty, but over a much longer period.
Among more primitive organisms, bacterial spores found in the intestines of a petrified amber-covered bee hold the record for hibernation, spending about 40 million years in a dormant state.
The researchers found that these worms use the same mechanism to enter suspended animation as modern roundworms of the species Caenorhabditis elegans, commonly found in compost heaps and rotting fruits worldwide.
Laboratory experiments revealed that dehydrating the worms slightly before subjecting them to -80°C temperatures with major bodily functions shut down was crucial for successful survival.
On a biochemical level, both species produced a sugar called trehalose when mildly dehydrated in the lab, which likely enabled them to tolerate freezing and severe dehydration. Professor Kurtzchalia pointed out that this discovery might hold implications for putting people into suspended animation, but significant progress is still required before such technology is feasible.
He emphasized that while the research offers a better understanding of reaching the borderline state between life and death, much remains to be explored. This newfound knowledge could have potential applications in preserving cells or tissues in the future.