2,000-Year-Old Seed Sprouts, Sapling Is Thriving

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Solowey, director of the experimental orchard and the NMRC cultivation site at Kibbutz Ketura in Israel, focuses primarily on finding new crops that grow well in the arid Middle East climate.

By January Solowey had done enough research on revitalizing the seeds to get the project off the ground.

First she soaked the seeds in hot water to make them once again able to absorb liquids. Then she soaked them in a solution of nutrients followed by an enzymatic fertilizer made from seaweed.

"I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?" she said.

Tu B'shevat, a Jewish holiday known as the New Year for Trees, fell this year on January 25. Solowey chose that day to plant the seeds in new potting soil, hook them up to a drip irrigation system, and leave them locked up.

She occasionally checked on the plants for a few months, and in March she noticed cracked soil in one of the pots—a sure sign of sprouts.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "I did everything to avoid contamination, so it had to be that seed. And by March 18 I could see it was a date shoot."

The first leaves were almost white with gray lines. They looked like corduroy but felt totally flat, Solowey said. She thought the plant would never survive. But by June healthier-looking leaves were growing on the young sapling.

As time progresses, she said, the leaves continue to look even healthier.

The researchers are now repeating the experiment with another batch of the ancient seeds to see if their success was a "one in a million" stroke of luck or if their technique can more readily bring ancient seeds to life, Sallon said.

Slow Grow

Date palms are either male or female. The sex of the sapling is unknown, but the researchers are hoping for a female, which would bear fruit.

If a modern date with similar DNA is found, the researchers may be able to tell the sex of their sapling soon. Otherwise they'll have to wait about four years, when female dates usually begin to bear fruit.

In ancient times the Judean date palm was a staple source of food, shelter, and shade. References to it are made in the Bible, the Koran, and other ancient literature. Judean date palms were wiped out by about A.D. 500.

Today's date trees in Israel were imported during the 1950s and '60s from modern cultivated Iraqi, Moroccan, and Egyptian varieties, Sallon said.

Solowey, who also works for Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, said it already appears the ancient plant has some interesting differences from modern dates.

If Methuselah bears fruit, Sallon and her colleagues will study its medicinal properties in hopes of better understanding what made the Judean date so famous in antiquity.

If funds can be found, the researchers hope to apply any novel properties to modern medicines.

"Maybe there are genes there that have actually died out or become extinct [in modern dates], in which case [the sapling] has very exciting possibilities for date cultivation as well," Sallon said.

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