National Geographic

2,000 year old “Phoenix” seed rises from the ashes


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On an isolated rock plateau in southern Israel, surrounded by steep cliff-faces, stands the imposing fortress of Masada. The site was built by King Herod as a pleasure palace and became famous for the alleged mass suicide of its Jewish inhabitants, who chose death over capture by Roman invaders.

Sallon2LR.jpgBut while the fortress’s occupants have long died, one former resident is still around – an ancient seed that survived beneath the rubble for 2,000 years and has today germinated into a tree. The seed comes from a date palm and appropriately enough, its carries the genus name of Phoenix and the nickname of “Methuselah”.

The seed was one of three that were excavated from Masada in the 1960s. It was stored at room temperature for four decades before being finally planted in 2005 by a team led by Sarah Sallon at the Hadassah Medical Organisation in Jerusalem.

Date.jpgThe planting took place on January 19, the date of the Jewish New Year of Trees, when new trees are traditionally planted.  Eight weeks later, it has started to sprout. Under the careful attention from plant specialist Elaine Solowey, the tree developed in a normal way. At first, its early leaves developed white patches where they lacked chlorophyll, probably because of a nutrient deficiency. But Methuselah managed to shrug off these early problems, and by early 2007, it was a four feet tall.

Second coming

Sallon confirmed the seed’s extreme age by carbon-dating small fragments of its original shell that were still clinging to its roots. The technique assesses the levels of a radioactive form of carbon that accumulates in living tissues but starts to fall in a predictable way once an organism dies. Based on these measurements, Sallon found that the seed was two millennia old, give or take about 50 years.

The resurrected date palm smashes the previous record for oldest seed ever germinated, held by a 1,300-year-old lotus seed. Sallon thinks that its longevity is the result of the high summer temperatures and low levels of rainfall at Masada. These harsh conditions dried the seed and curtailed the production of the free radicals, molecules that are a major force in seed ageing.

Masada.jpgThe date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) was first domesticated about 5,000 years ago and at the time that the Methuselah seed was born, the Judean Dead Sea region was famous for its extensive trade in dates. Since then, the historic date populations have been lost and today, only a few, low-quality palms are propagated from local seeds. Israel imports most of its date palms.  

Methuselah, however, represents a second coming for this extinct population. It shares about half of its genetic material with modern dates from Morocco, Egypt and Iraq, and the remainder could allow geneticists to peer back in time at their genes. If Methuselah turns out to be female (and Sallon will only know that for certain in about two years), it may even help to restore the date palms of old.  

Reference: Sallon, S., Solowey, E., Cohen, Y., Korchinsky, R., Egli, M., Woodhatch, I., Simchoni, O., Kislev, M. (2008). Germination, Genetics, and Growth of an Ancient Date Seed. Science, 320(5882), 1464-1464. DOI: 10.1126/science.1153600

Images: Seeds and date by Guy Eisner, courtesy of Science Magazine

There are 7 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. tbell
    June 12, 2008

    why do two years have to pass to know whether it’s female?
    can’t a genetic analysis of a leaf cutting tell us this? or is it problematic to take a cutting?

  2. Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    June 12, 2008

    Genetic analysis would be interesting anyway, for comparison with modern plants.

  3. Robyn
    June 12, 2008

    This is so COOL. Imagine being able to walk under such a tree – like a living connection to the lives of those living 2,000 years ago. Speaking of something 2,000 years old, I guess now there’s a plant to go with Mel Brooks’s 2,000 year old man!

  4. Jason Dick
    June 13, 2008

    tbell,
    I don’t know how sexual differentiation works in date palms, but bear in mind that it’s not always genetic. Sometimes it’s developmental. Maybe this is the case with date palms, and that’s why they don’t yet know? Not sure.
    But yes, if they haven’t already done it, I would expect a genetic analysis would be really interesting regardless.

  5. Monado, FCD
    December 29, 2009

    I saw a TV show about this about a year ago. It is resurrecting an ancient variety, at least, if not species. (I was amazed to discover that the different colours of day-lilies are not varieties developed by nurseries, but other species gathered from the wild & propagated into nursery populations.

  6. Dana
    January 6, 2010

    Hello. I am a student working on a science project and would really appreciate some help.
    My topic is relative to seed germination so I came across your name while I was conducting my research. Part of my project entales contacting a professional with experience and conducting an interview.
    I would greatly appreciate it if you would take a moment to answer a few questions.
    -What is your job title/position?
    -What are your job responsibilities?
    - How does your position relate to my topic of seed germination?
    -What type of education is necessary for a position in this field?
    -Do you think scientific research is important? Why or why not?
    -How does your job affect society?
    -Which factor has the greatest impact on seed germination?
    -Are there any factors that have consequences on seed germination?
    -Generally speaking, how long does the germination process usually take?
    -If you were to test the variable of different liquids (such as distilled water or decaffinated soda) on seed germination, what results would you expect?
    Again, I would greatly appreciate your help and your time if you could answer these questions.

  7. Mike
    August 23, 2012

    Hey, what ever happened with this? Was it female? Come on!

    EDIT: It’s male. They’ll be able to cross it with its closest living relative, the Hayany date palm, to produce fruit by 2022. There’s a Wikipedia entry, if you’re interested. Look the “Judean date palm.”

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