fossil flower
© Svetlana Yashina via The New York Times
An undated handout photo of a narrow-leafed campion that has been generated from the fruit of a little arctic flower. Russian biologists say that they have grown a plant that is 32,000 years old from seeds buried in permafrost.
In a discovery that may herald the Jurassic Park-style resurrection of mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers, Russian scientists have grown a plant from the frozen remains of a 32,000-year-old Arctic flower.

The plant is a narrow-leafed campion grown in petri dishes from organic materials pulled from the banks of the Kolyma River in Siberia. Details of the project appear in Tuesday's issue of The Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. It was drafted by a team led by Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Tragically, Mr. Gilichinsky died of a heart attack on Saturday.

The Russian-grown campion is suspected to be the oldest plant ever grown from ancient tissue. If so, it would trounce the previous record held by a date palm grown from a 2,000-year-old seed recovered from Masada, Israel, site of a mass suicide of Jewish rebels in 73 AD.

The Russian-grown campions are extremely similar to their modern-day descendants, although 32,000 years of evolution have given contemporary campions wider, less splayed-out petals.

A long-dead Arctic ground squirrel is credited with unwittingly creating the ancient seed bank.

During the Upper Paleolithic, a period when early humans were sorting out the beginnings of art and language, the rodent packed a burrow with a collection of seeds and fruits in preparation for the winter. The burrow, and others nearby, were soon buried deep in the ground and permanently frozen at - 7 C.

Similar prehistoric nests and burrows abound in the Yukon territory, much of which escaped glaciation during the last ice age. "We've tried to grow the seeds, but they've never worked," said Yukon Paleontologist Grant Zazula, who noted it is not impossible that mammoths could follow in the wake of the campions.

"We find partially-preserved mammoth carcasses in the Siberian tundra that are 30,000 years old," Mr. Zazula said. "This raises the potential that you could have viable sperm cells and egg cells within some of those mammals."

In a famous 1967 paper, a team led by biologist Erling Porsild reported that they had successfully grown Arctic lupine from seeds found in a 10,000-year-old lemming burrow unearthed by a Yukon gold miner. In 2009, Mr. Zazula led a team than debunked the claim: Although the burrow was ten millennia old, the lupine seeds were modern.

Mr. Zazula maintains that the recent Russian claim is genuine.

As ice sheets melt at dramatic rates across the world's polar regions, an increasing number of prehistoric seeds and plant material are being exposed to daylight for the first time in millennia. According to Mr. Zazula, the plants could be taking root.

"We don't know if that is not happening, and what does it mean when you start introducing 30,000 year-old genomes into a modern-day ecosystem?" said Mr. Zazula.