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"Methuselah" Tree Grew From 2,000-Year-Old Seed

Anne Minard
for National Geographic News
June 12, 2008
 
The oldest-sprouted seed in the world is a 2,000-year-old plant from Jerusalem, a new study confirms.

"Methuselah," a 4-foot-tall (1.2-meter-tall) ancestor of the modern date palm, is being grown at a protected laboratory in the Israeli capital.

In 2005 the young plant was coaxed out of a seed recovered in 1963 from Masada, a fortress in present-day Israel where Jewish zealots killed themselves to avoid capture by the Romans in A.D. 70.

Because a witness to the long-ago siege recorded the Jews' plight and eventual mass suicide, locations of their food stores—which the Jews left behind to show they didn't starve to death—were well documented.

So the exact age of the seed isn't a big surprise, said project leader Sarah Sallon of the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem, but: "I was surprised that we were able to grow it."

Methuselah beats out the previous oldest-seed record holder, a lotus tree grown from a 1,300-year-old seed in 1995 by Jane Shen-Miller, a botanist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues.

(Related: "Oldest Living Tree Found in Sweden" [April 14, 2008].)

The Israeli seedling may advance medicines and reveal genetic relationships between ancient and modern date palms, experts say.

Witness to History

The fortress Masada was originally built in high ground above the Dead Sea as King Herod's pleasure palace, but legend has it that Jews occupied the fort for seven months while they were under siege by the Romans.

(Related: "King Herod's Tomb Unearthed Near Jerusalem, Expert Says" [May 8, 2007].)

Writings recorded at the time indicate that the Jews committed mass suicide rather than be conquered and live under Roman rule. Those same writings told researchers where to look for the long-preserved food stores.

All botanical discoveries from the palace were stored at the Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv for 40 years before Sallon and her team tried to germinate three date palm seeds in 2005.

Only one, Methuselah, yielded a tree.

At the beginning its leaves were plagued with white spots, which the researchers chalked up to insufficient nutrients.

These days it looks like a healthy modern date palm. But unlike its descendants, Methuselah grows better in fresh water than brackish water.

That's because the older version of the tree was usually found near freshwater oases, farther from the Dead Sea, Sallon said.

A study on Methuselah appears tomorrow in the journal Science.

Small Window

Paul Gepts, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, was not involved in the study.

Methuselah "opens a small window into life [in Jerusalem] two thousand years ago," he said. (See photos of ancient Jerusalem sites.)

But he's not sure how valuable a single specimen will be for studies of date palms' genetic diversity.

"How much can we learn from one individual?" he asks. "Normally, palms are cross-pollinated. One would expect them to be very diverse."

Sallon agreed, adding that the plants are "a bit like people. If I wanted to say, What does this one say about a population, it doesn't say much. We're hoping just to germinate more date seeds."

Date Potential

But Methuselah holds potential beyond genetic studies, Sallon said.

Judean date palms once formed thick forests throughout the Jordan River Valley. Today, Israel imports its date palms.

If Methuselah is female—which should be known by 2012, when the plant would be ready to bear fruit—it might support species-restoration efforts.

Sallon also wants to know if the plant may have medicinal properties, as the ancients believed. But any real medicinal value will come from its dates.

No celebrations are planned if and when a first date appears, Sallon said.

"We will celebrate when there is peace," she said. "We will celebrate when all people in this region can plant these trees together, and share any medicinal benefits it brings."
 

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