Forget cryopreservation – hot and dry conditions might be all you need to awake far into the future. A date palm seed some 2000 years old – preserved by nothing more than storage in hot and dry conditions – has germinated, making it the oldest seed in the world to do so.
The ancient seed was found along with several others in the 1960s in the Masada fortress on the edge of the Dead Sea in Israel. Recently, three were planted in soil and one germinated.
To determine their age, an Israeli and Swiss team carbon dated the two dud seeds and found them to be approximately 2000 years old – making them possible contemporaries of Jesus.
When the germinated date was 15 months old, the researchers moved it to a new pot and retrieved fragments of the seed shell so they too could be carbon dated.
Although the plant is now just 26 months old, the dating process indicated that the seed was around 1750 years old – 250 years or so younger than the seeds which had not germinated. However, this figure was not a true reflection of its great age.
"During its growth the date plant had taken up modern carbon and this affected the carbon dating results," explains Sarah Sallon of the Louis L Borick Natural Medicine Research Center in Jerusalem.
The modern carbon skewed the result and made the seed appear about 250 to 300 years younger, she says.
Previously, the oldest seed to have germinated was a 1300-year-old Chinese lotus seed, but the plant that grew from it had serious genetic abnormalities.
Sallon thinks that the extreme dryness and heat of the Dead Sea region may have helped conserve the seed in a way that it was able to germinate 2000 years later.
In the first century AD, the area was famous for its high-quality dates, but the plants were later lost. Preliminary genetic analysis suggests the ancient date plant is quite different to its modern cousins, but the researchers caution that with only one plant to test, the results are not conclusive. They are seeking more ancient seeds to carry out more genetic studies.
If the ancient dates are very different, they could carry genes that make modern varieties more successful or resilient.
Journal reference: Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1153600)