June 13, 2008

Tree From Oldest Known Seed Thrives In Masada

Just over three years old and standing about four-feet tall, Methuselah appears to be a normal date palm.

However, scientists have proven that the little tree that sprouted in 2005 came from a seed that dates back about 2,000 years.

The tree grew from a seed recovered from Masada four decades ago in 1965.

Named after the oldest person in the Bible, the seed surpasses the previous record for oldest germinated seed held by a 1,300 year-old Chinese lotus, according to researchers in the journal Science.

Dr. Sarah Sallon, director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel, said she became interested in the ancient date palm as a possible source of medicines. She enlisted Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura to coax the seeds out of dormancy.

Based on carbon dating of other seeds found at the site, scientists estimated that the one tree that sprouted was about 2,000 years old, but didn't have substantial proof until Solowey found fragments of the seed's shell clinging to the roots.

The shell fragments were initially dated to AD 295, but a small percentage of "modern" carbon incorporated at the seed germinated made it seem 250 to 300 years younger than it actually was. After realizing this, the researchers reported that the seed dates from 60 BC to AD 95, similar to the other seeds from the site.

Researchers say that estimate would put the seed's origins within the time shortly after the Roman siege in 73, when, according to the ancient historian Josephus, nearly 1,000 Jewish Zealots in the Masada fortress committed mass suicide rather than capitulate to the Romans.

"These people were eating these dates up on the mountain and looking down at the Roman camp, knowing that they were going to die soon, and spitting out the pits," Sallon said. "Maybe here is one of those pits."

Cary Fowler, seed preservation expert and executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust said the seeds probably survived for so long because of the arid conditions of the Masada mesa.

Preliminary comparison of Methuselah's DNA with modern date palms shows a 20 percent to 50 percent difference from current varieties, differences which may include lost traits for resistance to pests and diseases.

Sallon and her colleagues hope to cultivate more ancient date seeds and eventually reintroduce the Judean date palm to the area.

"It should be there because that's where it belongs," she said.

She also plans to question whether the palm is the legendary tree of life.

That question won't be answered until around 2010, when Methuselah -- if female -- may bear fruit.



Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center