Scientists sure are good at making us constantly feel like we’re in the opening scenes of a horror movie. The latest case of science toeing the line between being really cool and going too far comes out of Siberia, because of course it does. According to the Siberian Times, Russian scientists have successfully resurrected two roundworms—nematodes— that were frozen in the Siberian permafrost since the Pleistocene era. For context, when these worms were frozen, woolly mammoths were stomping around Siberia. The two nematodes are 32,000 and 40,000 years old, approximately, and now that they’ve woken from their slumber are the two oldest living animals on earth.
Scientists say that this is a major breakthrough and could pave the way for human cryonics—the ability to freeze a person for long periods of time and bring them back, for applications like long term space travel or the arrogant quest for immortality. According to the scientists:
“Our data demonstrate the ability of multicellular organisms to survive long-term (tens of thousands of years) cryobiosis under the conditions of natural cryoconservation.
It is obvious that this ability suggests that the Pleistocene nematodes have some adaptive mechanisms that may be of scientific and practical importance for the related fields of science, such as cryomedicine, cryobiology, and astrobiology.”
Russian scientists at the Institute of Physico-Chemical and Biological Problems of Soil Science, working in collaboration with scientists at Princeton University in the U.S., collected samples of frozen nematodes from the Yakutia region of Siberia, the coldest part of Russia. This is close to the proposed “Pleistocene Park” which would recreate the habitat of woolly mammoths. All in all 300 samples of frozen nematodes were taken. Only two were actually brought back to life, so don’t go taking a nap in the walk-in freezer just yet.
According to the research once the worms were defrosted in petri dishes, they began showing signs of life, moving and eating food, as if they hadn’t just slept for all of recorded history.
If you’ve spent at least a decade or two on this planet you’ve heard of cryonics or cryogenic freezing. The plot of the show Futurama is based on a 21st century man accidentally freezing himself and getting defrosted in the far future. Then there’s the persistent—and likely false—rumor of Walt Disney having his body frozen so he might get resurrected when they found a cure for cancer.
Cryonics holds a lot of promise to a lot of people. Apart from the medical applications, the other use is in space travel. Assuming we don’t develop faster than light travel, the only way to get a space exploration team farther into deep space than the human lifespan will allow is to freeze them. The basic premise is this: it should be possible to lower a persons body temperature enough so that there is no deterioration, even after centuries (or millennia) spent frozen. The second part is harder: bringing them back. Thawing out two worms is definitely a far cry from freezing the crew of a space ship and bringing them back a century a century or more later in the middle of deep space, but at least it’s a start.
Unless these worms keep eating and growing until they’re the size of school buses and then we have that problem to deal with. Be careful when you jump into sci-fi territory, people, you never know which version of the future you’re going to get.