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Geography and Environmental Science

New research: Surviving the Ice Age

Published: 19 February 2018
Lake Bolshoye Schuchye
Working on Lake Bolshoye Schuchye. Photo courtesy of John Inge Svendsen at University of Bergen.

Analysis of DNA from plants preserved within the ancient sediments of a 12km long mega-lake in Arctic Russia has helped to solve the mystery surrounding the survival and persistence of Arctic plants during the last Ice Age.

New research by Geography and Environment’s Professor Mary Edwards, Profesor Paul Hughes and PhD student Charlotte Clarke has shed new light on Arctic plant community dynamics over the past 25,000 years using techniques of ancient DNA analysis. Fragments of DNA from organisms such as plants, animals or fungi which died thousands of years ago can often be well-preserved within the ancient sediments of lakes, providing a unique window into past landscapes.  Extracting these DNA fragments and matching the sequences to a purposefully designed reference database can enable a reconstruction of which species were present at certain times in the past and how they responded to climate changes.

This research aimed to test whether ancient plant DNA could be extracted from the 25,000 year old sediments of a large, deep glacial finger lake in Arctic Russia and if so, to gain a better understanding of which vascular plant species survived here during the last Ice Age and whether they managed to persist following climate warming at the end of this interval. It is thanks to collaboration with colleagues at the University of Bergen, Tromsø and Grenoble who made this work possible.

Lake Bolshoye Schuchye is located in the Polar Ural Mountains of Arctic Russia and is over 12 km long and over 130 m deep. Despite being located so far north (67oN), the region remained ice-free during the last Ice Age and may therefore hold important insights into how species responded to this cold, glacial interval.

A 24m long sediment sequence was retrieved from the southern end of the lake, providing an unprecedented high-resolution record of environmental change over the past 25,000 years. Ancient DNA analysis detected 167 different plant species in total, suggesting a rich and diverse Arctic flora throughout the past 25,000 years which appears to be resilient in the face of large climate changes.

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