Israeli scientists revive extinct date palm

June 14th, 2008 - 9:48 am ICT by IANS  

By Ofira Koopmans
Tel Aviv, June 14 (DPA) Israeli scientists have succeeded in getting a 2,000-year-old date seed to sprout and grow into a palm of a native type that had been extinct for hundreds of years. That, they say, makes it the oldest known seed ever germinated.

The seed - nicknamed Methusaleh after the oldest person in the Bible - was found in the ancient fortress of Masada, on a hilltop in the Judean desert by the Dead Sea where Jewish zealots committed mass suicide to avoid surrender to the Romans in the first century CE.

Project manager Sarah Sallon hopes the palm will prove to be a fruit-bearing female, but that she will know only in a few years time, when the now more than 1.20-metre-tall sprout grows into a palm tree.

If another of the seeds found at Masada can be cultivated and proves to be male, the two trees will be able to reproduce.

Israel, which now grows only imported date species originating from countries like Morocco, Egypt and Iraq, would be able to cultivate its own native kind: the Judean date palm, or Phoenix dactylifera in Latin, hundreds of years after it died out.

It is no surprise therefore that Sallon sounds excited. According to the first-century Roman author, zoologist and botanist Pliny the Elder, “huge” forests of date palms stretched in his time from the Sea of Galilee in what is now northern Israel to the Dead Sea in the south, she explains.

Pliny, she adds, described the Judean dates as delicious and especially large. They were also said to have medicinal properties, used against “spitting blood” - probably meaning tuberculosis - and stomach problems, including diarrhoea.

Sallon, who runs a natural medicine research centre at Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, wants to study those medicinal properties.

But after the Romans conquered the region in the first century CE and as a result of other, later invasions, the date palm forests, which she explains need careful and continuous cultivation, gradually died out.

By the Crusader period, or the late Middle Ages, “almost nothing was left of those plantations”.

“Date trees are like children. You have to look after them,” she says, explaining the Babylonians worked out 5,000 years ago how to spur pollination by manually bringing the male pollen to the female, climbing the trees.

The British-born Israeli and her co-worker, plant specialist Elaine Solowey, planted Methuselah and two other date seeds found at the same location in January 2005. Only Methuselah began sprouting, and the Israeli scientists describe its development over the past more than 26 months in Friday’s issue of Science.

The seeds were found at Masada during the 1963-65 excavations of the fortress built in the first century BC by Jewish Roman client King Herod the Great.

They were stored at room temperature for four decades by the keepers of the artifacts collection of world-renowned Israeli archeologist - and former army chief of staff - Yigal Yadin, who had led the excavations at Masada.

“In 2005 I went, and begged them to give me some seeds,” says Sallon.

She believes the high summer temperatures and low precipitation at Masada may have contributed to the seeds’ exceptional longevity, by minimising the creation of free radicals.

Sallon and her co-workers send two other date seeds found at Masada as well as fragments of the seed clinging to the roots of the growing palm to the University of Zurich for radiocarbon dating, which found that they were 2,000 years old, give or take 50 years.

The carbon dating also matched the historic dating of when Masada functioned as a pleasure palace for King Herod.

To date, the oldest seed on record ever to have taken roots and grown into a plant was 1,300 years old and that of a lotus - found in a dried-up lake in China and cultivated at the University of California, says Sallon.

Reports that a 10,000-year-old seed of an Arctic flower found at a burial site was the oldest ever germinated have not been verified, because while other items found at the site were carbon dated and found to be of that age, the seed itself was not. It could therefore have been dropped at the site at a later age.

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