Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 15th Jun 2008

2000 year old seedling

Dr Sarah Sallon, from the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Centre, Israel.

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Chris - To tell us the story of this extraordinary bit of horticulture is Dr Sarah Sallon. She’s from the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Centre in the Hadassah Hospital, Israel. Hello Sarah.

Photo of dates on a date palmSarah - Hello, hi Chris. How are you?

Chris - Very well, thank you. Thank you for joining us on the Naked Scientists. Where did this 2000 year-old seed come from?

Sarah - Well, the seed is a baked seed and it was discovered at the archaeological site of Masada which is Herod’s palace, built above the Dead Sea about 2000-and-something years ago by King Herod.

Chris - What was the seed doing there? Why hadn’t it already germinated?

Sarah - <laughs> We think that, according to history, the seed was part of the food supply of the Jewish zealots who had barricaded themselves in Masada in about 67 of the Common Era. The Romans finally laid siege in 73 and for around 9 months they subsisted on all kinds of food they’d taken up there. We know from their records that there were about 900 men, women and children. On the very last day of the siege they committed suicide rather than being taken alive. When the Romans burst in there was no one there to fight them so they basically smashed the place to pieces. It was a magnificent palace and it was just really demolished by the Roman legions. These seeds were found 2000 years later by Professor Yadin who was a very famous Israeli archaeologist. When he started the excavation he started in the 1960s. He discovered under a pile of rubble a whole cache of ancient seeds of which quite a few of them were date seeds.

Chris - Since the 1960s where have they been, these seeds?

Sarah - Well, they’ve been in the University. They were stored in the department here in Bar Ilan University in Israel in the Department of Botanical Archaeology and actually the Department of Life Sciences. It’s where they keep botanical artefacts from archaeological excavations. They were there for 40 years until I had the idea of, as part of a larger project we have, looking and researching and restoring Middle Eastern plants which were found in this region. I had this idea to get the seeds from archaeological sites and to try and grow them. That particular date no longer exists in Israel or anywhere else. It’s extinct.

Chris - How do you know it’s 2000 years old?

Sarah - I don’t because I didn’t do the carbon-14 dating but we sent off two control seeds to the University of Zurich, their radiocarbon lab which is one of the best in the world. The two control seeds that were from the same site, were stored at Bar Ilan, came back at 2000 years old. In fact, plus or minus 50 years around the siege period. Then when our little date seedling, which we’ve nicknamed Methuselah, was about a year and a half old was being taken from its small pot by Dr Soloway (who germinated it) into a larger pot she found tiny fragments of the shell still attached to the roots. We sent those fragments to Zurich and the results came back about 2000 years. So we were very excited because that was direct evidence of its age.

Chris - Why did you decide to plant this in the first place? Because you must have thought there’s no hope in hell this thing’s gonna grow, it’s 2000 years old!

Sarah - Well I never do things I don’t think there’s any hope in! If I didn’t think there was any hope I wouldn’t have done it. I was optimistically thinking that there could be. There had been other stories in the literature from China and 1300 year-old lotus seeds. Seeds from the Natural History Museum that germinated during the Second World War when there was an incendiary bomb and a lot of water was used to put them out. Some seeds in the Natural history Museum germinated in this period. I was kind of excited and we had, with some difficulty, got some from Bar Ilan University. It was part of our project on Middle Eastern plants which is to research plants of this region which are highly medicinal (many of which are mentioned in the Bible and also in the Koran) and to preserve them; to redistribute them in Israel where they have been destroyed; to study them for their traditional use.

Chris - When you did some genetic analysis on this plant is it similar to the date plants that are still around today or is it different?

Sarah - Anyone who’s a geneticist who’s listening to this will know that taking a seed which is produced from sexual reproduction, which the dates are because dates are male or female – taking one seed will not really give us any confirmatory evidence of its genetic characteristics. You need a population to give you an understanding of the genetic characteristics. Just looking at one seed which we’ve got at the moment it does kind of different from the standard cultivated date species that are around these days which originate in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and which are now growing in Israel.

Chris - Will it be possible to breed from this plant which you’ve managed to re-grow or is there a chance that it might not be female and therefore it’s going to be a lonely male and will never reproduce?

Sarah - I think that’s a very sad statement that it might be a lonely male. We don’t know and we won’t know until it’s about 6 or 7 years old when we’ll see whether it has female reproductive organs and is therefore female or whether it’s a male. If it is a female then we have a chance of perhaps producing dates using a male donor or maybe we’ll be able to germinate another seed.

Chris - Let’s hope so. Thank you very much, Sarah. Sarah Sallon who is from the Louis Burick Natural Medicine Research Centre at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. She was talking to us there and she has broken the Guinness Book of Records for growing the world’s oldest seed.

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