Australian scientists working at the University of Western Australia in Perth sequenced the DNA of seagrass found growing on the seafloor in the Mediterranean from Spain to Cyprus. They discovered that the plant-life was unimaginably aged. In fact, they believe that the seagrass Posidonia oceanica, especially an underwater meadow located off the island of Formentera near Spain, is the oldest living thing on Earth.
Carlos Duarte and his colleagues sequenced the seagrass DNA from samples gathered at 40 sites across 2,100 miles of seafloor, NewScientist.com reported this week. But it was an meadow off Formentera that stretched over 9 continuous miles that was considered, given the annual rate of growth of the plant species, to be the oldest -- somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 years of age.
That age range made Posidonia oceanica by far the oldest living thing on Earth. According to the Daily Telegraph, the closest living organism in age to the new discovery is a Tasmanian species of seagrass, Lomatia tasmanica, believed to be 43,000 years old.
Duarte and his fellow researchers' findings were published in the journal PLoS One.
According to Duarte, seagrass reproduces by cloning, so many miles of meadows can be found that are genetically identical. It is also considered one living organism.
And even though the seagrass has been able to continue reproducing and living for thousands of years, proof of its resilient nature, its time on Earth may soon be coming to an end. According to Duarte, coastal development and global warming was beginning to take a toll.
He told the Daily Telegraph that the seagrass' rate of reproduction was extremely slow. The plant stored nutrients in its branches, having developed the storage system over time to enable it to withstand poor conditions. But global warming was heating up the seagrass' habitat with the waters of the Mediterranean warming about three times faster than the world average.
Estimates revealed that Posidonia oceanica meadows were declining at a rate of about 5 percent per year.
"If climate change continues, the outlook for this species is very bad," he said.
"The seagrass in the Mediterranean is already in clear decline due to shoreline construction and declining water quality and this decline has been exacerbated by climate change. As the water warms, the organisms move slowly to higher altitudes. The Mediterranean is locked to the north by the European continent.
"They cannot move. The outlook is very bad."
To put the seagrass' age in perspective, the oldest living organism of a non-cloned variety on land is a Great Basin Bristecone Pine tree. As noted by PBS, a pine nicknamed Methuselah after the biblical character that is credited with living the longest (nearly a thousand years), the tree turned 4,843 years old in 2012.
The cloned root system of a Quaking Aspen is the oldest living land organism, though. According to the National Park Service website, the root system known as "Pando," which resides in Fishlake National Park in Utah. Pando is believed to be 80,000 years old.
(photo credit: Gronk, Creative Commons)