40,000-year-old roundworms discovered in 2018 sparks concerns two years later

Internet users expressed a renewed concern for the 2020s as a user recently posted a 2018 headline from Smithsonian Magazine reading “Ancient Roundworms Allegedly Resurrected From Russian Permafrost” on the D*mnthatsinteresting subreddit.

Users expressed both interest and fear in response to the resurgence of the discovery. Some were mildly interested while others remarked that 2020 did not need to become the year of the real-life Jurassic Park. Another user suggested that a Jurassic Park scenario might not be the worst thing the global populace has faced this year.

According to the Smithsonian’s original article, the roundworms — otherwise known as nematodes — were discovered by a team of Russian scientists analyzing sections of Permafrost. The nematodes initially resided in a lab kept at -4 degrees Fahrenheit, but were eventually moved to a 68 degree environment. The roundworms were eventually transferred to a petri dish, and later began to move and eat after the section of permafrost they were contained in was defrosted.

The magazine suggested that in addition to becoming earth’s oldest animal, the discovery would also mark the longest life had been sustained through cryogenic preservation — the process of stopping cell decay by storing an organism at extremely low temperatures, according to CNN.

“The nematodes of the families Panagrolaimidae and Plectidae, which the species found in permafrost deposits belong to, inhabit soil and freshwater biotopes, are widespread on all continents (including the Antarctic) and (are) highly resistant to drying and freezing,” the scientists wrote in the Doklady Biological Sciences journal. “Thus, our data demonstrate the ability of multicellular organisms to survive long-term (tens of thousands of years) cryobiosis under the conditions of natural cryoconservation.”

Other researchers question the validity of the findings.

Through email correspondence with Gizmodo, Robin M. Giblin-Davis, nematologist and acting director of the University of Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, suggested that while a discovery of this type could realistically happen, there is great potential that the researchers made some type of error.

“The biggest issue is the potential for contamination of ‘ancient samples’ with ‘contemporary’ organisms,” Giblin-Davis said.

Byron J. Adams, a nematologist at Brigham Young University, explained that difficulty carbon dating the animals has somewhat stunted further development in an interview with Gizmodo.

Adams expressed that another less acute method was available to determine the age of the roundworms.

“After 40 thousand years, we should expect to detect significant differences in evolutionary divergence between ancient and contemporary populations,” Adams said.

University of Maine Associate Professor of Paleoecology & Plant Ecology Jacquelyn Gill expressed that she was less than convinced by the findings in a Twitter thread from about a year after the news originally broke.

“Right now, as an ice age ecologist, I have no confidence that these are real ice age nematodes, and not modern nematodes that got into two out of (greater than) 300 samples,” Gill wrote. “Journalists should not be reporting this finding as a credible fact unless and until we get a lot more information.”

Although the validity of the findings is questionable, Anastasia Shatilovich — one of the original Russian scientists — expressed that she is often questioned about whether thaws like this could lead to deadly consequences for environments, in an interview with Russia Beyond.

“As a result of the ongoing thawing of the permafrost, organisms preserved in it find their way into the modern ecosystem every year, it’s a natural process,” Shatilovich said. “We simply follow nature and do nothing that doesn’t happen in the natural environment.”

One question still remains: is a dinosaur revival similar to that of ‘Jurassic Park’ achievable with these organisms?

The answer — potentially, according to the Smithsonian.

Professor at Chapman University, Paleontologist and ‘Jurassic Park’ technical advisor Jack Horner explained in an interview with NBC Mach that while the films and their sequels have fictitious elements, the general premise remains a real possibility.

“My job was to get a little science into ‘Jurassic Park,’ but not ruin it,” Horner said. “There’s a lot of the movie that’s based in science. In ‘Jurassic Park,’ we have a little dancing DNA guy that talks about what DNA is. That’s pretty scientific.”

Michael Irving of News Atlas suggests that the roundworms might only be able to bring about the revival of the woolly mammoth or other Pleistocene creatures through cloning and other processes, but is contradicted by Horner.

“We can’t clone dinosaurs,” Horner said. “We can’t get any of their DNA. Even if we had dinosaur DNA, we don’t know how to actually form an animal just from DNA. The animal cloning that we do these days is with a live cell. We don’t have any dinosaur live cells. The whole business of having a dinosaur is a lot of fiction.”

Although the possibility of dinosaur-related attacks across the globe are slim, one commenter on the original forum expressed that they hope to not see the headline again on a different subreddit titled WhatCouldGoWrong.