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Dated horticulture - scientists grow 2000 year old seed

Sun, 15th Jun 2008

Part of the show Fire and Mud - The Science of Volcanoes

Carbon dating has confirmed that scientists have broken the record for growing the world's oldest seed - a date dating from 2000 years ago.

The Date Palm, Phoenix dactyliferaIn the 1960s archaeologists excavated the fortress of Masada, which overlooks the Dead Sea, and uncovered a clutch of seeds in one part of their dig. The seeds spent the next 40 years in a museum before researcher Sarah Sallon, from the Hadassah Medical Organisation in Jerusalem, obtained some of them for research.

Two were carbon dated, which confirmed that they were at least 2000 years old, whilst the other three the researchers planted. Incredibly one sprouted and over the past 26 months has turned into a handsome date palm. To prove the authenticity of the plant the researchers teased the original seed case away from the roots and this too was carbon dated, which proved that this seed was certainly over 2000 years old.

Now the team have also genetically fingerprinted the date plant, which they have called "Methuselah" after the oldest person in the Bible, and found that it is significantly different from modern date plants, sharing only about 50% of its genes with them.  This means that if Methuselah turns out to be female, which the team won't know for another year or two, it could be used to effectively bring back old dates from the dead.

Moreover, according to ancient texts, the plants also had medicinal properties, which the team plan to explore next. The discovery, which is described in this week's edition of the journal Science, steals the record for the oldest seed to be successfully germinated. Previously the holder of the title was a 1300 year-old lotus seed.

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