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

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.

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