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Dated date. Methuselah, shown at 26 months, arose from an ancient Israeli fig seed.

Photo by Guy Eisner/Courtesy of Science

Ancient Palm Resurrected from 2000-Year-Old Seed

Scientists have successfully grown a date palm from a 2000-year-old seed dug up from the Judean desert. That makes the seed, whose age has just been verified by radiocarbon dating, the oldest ever to germinate.

Once upon a time, the Dead Sea region was famous for its full-size, succulent dates. The fruits were renowned for their sweetness and for their use in treating respiratory problems and depression. Indeed, Judean dates represented Israel's biggest export business 2000 years ago. But centuries of wars, invasions, and drought disrupted date cultivation, and by the time of the Crusades 800 years ago, the region's vast date forests had disappeared.

In 1963, a team of archaeologists, excavating King Herod's fortress in Masada, near the Dead Sea, discovered ancient date seeds beneath the rubble. They preserved the seeds in a room for more than 40 years, with the intent of studying them further, and recently, a team of botanists, agronomists, and biologists did just that. Led by Sarah Sallon, head of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center in Jerusalem, the researchers decided to plant some of the date seeds as part of a project to regrow medicinal plants lost from the area.

There have been many claims of "ancient" seeds germinating but usually without well-accepted verification of the seeds' ages. So Sallon's team turned to radiocarbon dating, which measures the age of objects based on the decay rate of their carbon isotopes, to date two of the seeds to about 2110 and 1995 years old.

The researchers were unable to plant those seeds, because the dating process destroys the shell, but they did plant a third seed. That seed germinated after 8 weeks, similar to modern dates. After allowing the plant--nicknamed Methuselah after the oldest person in the Bible--to grow for 15 months, the scientists dated shell fragments clinging to rootlets from the seed and arrived at an age of about 1700 years. The researchers suspect that the original seed was closer to 2000 years old but that the carbon the plant incorporated as it grew skewed the calculations.

Sallon and colleagues, who report their findings tomorrow in Science, are currently conducting genetic analysis on the young plants to see whether they represent an extinct species. If so, Sallon says her team will try to reintroduce the plant to Israel. That could allow scientists to cross the ancient date with more modern varieties, in the hopes of creating palms more resistant to infection and drought, for example.

Palm expert William Baker of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in Richmond, U.K., agrees that the resurrected palm could be useful for conservation purposes. But he notes that only the female plant produces seeds, so the ancient seeds will have more value if they develop into female plants.