Cryopreservation in fiction and Nature.
Image by library_mistress via Flickr
If you’ve read science fiction novels you have probably run across cryopreservation—preserving a living organism from decay by subjecting it to extreme temperatures, either drying or freezing. (In novels, people who travel in space tend to prefer preservation by freezing rather than drying.) Nature, however does it both ways. The extremely dry climate of Masada, for example, preserved the seeds of (apparently all but) extinct Judean Date. Once archaeologists discovered and “resurrected” the seeds, one of them grew into a viable plant (aptly named Methuselah) which is now growing in a park. In 1995, scientists discovered a bacterium that managed to survive for 25 to 40 million years by going into hibernation while the Earth went into an ice age.
Some cells, it seems, have the natural ability to transform themselves into solids under the right temperatures. (Cells that are solids—that is have gotten rid of their water either by drying or freezing—don’t move around, don’t do their work and thus don’t get worn down. In short, they don’t degrade.) Today, scientists are trying to harness this natural ability for various purposes. Cryobiologist Amir Arav is working with the US army to figure out a way to freeze-dry soldiers’ blood so they can carry pellets of it around with them. If he is successful (and he says it’s only a matter of time, though he won’t say how much time) this procedure will save lives. Dorbian biologist Patricia Berjak meanwhile is trying to use cryobiology to preserve seeds in such a way that they are not destroyed by fungi—food preservation is in Africa too often a question of life or death. Scientists at Monash University are experimenting with cryogenics to preserve the snow leopards. I could go on.
But what’s fascinating to me about all this is how not just that scientists are trying to emulate nature (that after all is not really new) but that science fiction writers seemed to have given them the idea.