Still good after 2,000 years



Thinking of throwing out those old seeds that have been sitting in your garage forever? Think again. Researchers were able to grow a tree from a seed that was 2,000 years old!

I want more candy!
You’re lying, right?
My brain hurts!

What? Where did these seeds come from?
The seeds were discovered in 1973 while excavating a historic site in Israel called Masada.

How do we know they’re actually 2,000 years old?
Scientists use a process called carbon-dating to determine the age of many artifacts. They’re able to this because some of the carbon in the air is radioactive. No, don’t worry, it’s not dangerous. The amount of radioactivity it produces is so low that the cells of your body can easily repair any damage. This radioactive carbon is called C14 (unlike ‘regular’ carbon which is C12 or C13). The C stands for carbon. The number stands for the mass of the atom, which is the number of neutrons plus the number of protons. C14 is unstable, which is why it’s radioactive. Fortunately for scientists C14 decays at a constant rate. Scientists can measure the amount of C14 in an artifact, compare it to the amount in the atmosphere, and calculate an approximate age for an artifact.

What kind of plant is it?
The seeds were from an ancient date palm, which has since become extinct. Date palms at the time were known for their healing properties, which date palms today no longer posess.

Why?
In part scientists grew the seed just to see if it was possible. Seeds are known to be extra protected, allowing them to survive many conditions that a full grown plant could not. The fact that a 2,000 year old seed was still alive just goes to show exactly how protected seeds can be! Scientists still aren’t sure how these seeds managed to survive for so long. Figuring out how they do could help studies of human aging. If we can figure out how these seeds protected themselves, maybe we can protect the cells of our body in a similar way. The second reason researchers were interested in these seeds was to revive an extinct plant, that, as mentioned above, may have medicinal properties.

How did scientists grow a plant from a seed that old?
It wasn’t quite as simple as putting a seed in some soil and watering it. A researcher who specializes in plants first soaked the seed in water (after 2,000 years, the seed was a bit dry), then soaked the seed in a special solution with lots of nutrients. Normally seeds have their own supply of nutrients, but again, after 2,000 years it was likely that this seed needed a little help. Then the researcher did just put the seed in some soil and wait! After a couple of months amazingly, a sprout grew!

Now what?
Scientists are already comparing the DNA of the ancient date palm with our modern palms to see how they’re different. In the mean time they’ll wait for the date palm to mature, which takes about 4 years. Then, hopefully, scientists will be able to revive a plant that has been extinct for many years!

THE BOTTOM LINE
Seeds are amazing. Even after 2,000 years, they’re still good. And because of that we may soon be able to help our cells survive better, and we may also revive ancient ways to treat illness.

LINKS
National Geographic writes about the wonder seeds.
Wikipedia learn all you ever needed to know about date palms
MSNBC has pictures of the sapling and original seeds
Original article abstract from the study
Podcast listen to the scientists who did it!

Photo by S n o R k e l

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