Masada date palm: the 2000 year old seed

Organic Mama asks:

Ok, how can a seed that has been around for thousands of years – like those found at Masada – live long enough to be able to engender life? Are they dormant? Isn’t it astronomically unlikely?

seeds.jpgWell, yes it is astronomically unlikely – unless conditions are exactly right. Many seeds will “go dormant” while they “wait” for the right conditions to germinate. The most common factors that induce dormancy in seed are temperature and moisture. Some seeds also detect day/night cycles, and will remain dormant if the ratio od light to dark is not correct.  Remember, when a seed is dormant, it is not hibernating. A seed is a little packet of molecules – as long as the molecules do not degrade or get mashed up, the seed will still be viable. So why do the seeds I buy for my garden have lower germination rates the longer I wait to plant them? Because seeds do degrade. Some seeds degrade faster than others, and most of the seeds that we buy to plant in our gardens are the results of long domestication and selective breeding to improve the crop we are planting. Very often when we breed seeds to be more productive, they pay by being more prone to damage over time. In other words, they get more delicate.

So lets take a look at the seeds from Masada. They are a strain of date palm, and the carbon dating places the seeds at about 2,000 years old. If this is correct, this is the oldest known seed to be germinated, so we need to start out by realizing that we are dealing with a true statistical outlier (‘freak of nature” in science speak). Keep in mind that prior to this date palm, the oldest seeds that had been germinated was only about 1,000 year old lotus seeds.

masada.jpgArchaeologist Ehud Netzer found the seeds, which were then placed in storage, where they lay for 30 years. Some of the seeds was then “planted” (I haven’t been able to find an exact number, but the original find was “a couple dozen seeds”) – it was treated with special growth hormones to encourage it to germinate, and one of the seeds sprouted. The seedling has been kept in isolation to protect it from modern diseases, and we do not know what sex the tree is (date palm are either male or female).

So, how could a seed grow after 20 centuries of sitting around? first of all, plants like date palms are very good at waiting around for the right conditions for their seeds to sprout. Evolution has tuned them to have seeds that can sit around in the desert until conditions are right, then sprout. Sure, but 2,000 years? Once again, lets look at the conditions. The seeds were found at Masada – a fortress at the top of a mountain in the desert. The seeds were in a “jar” – sort of a trash can for date pits. This means that the seeds were in a fairly sheltered place in the fortress – sheltered enough that the jar itself could survive. Because Masada is in the desert, the air would tend to be dry, and the jar would tend to protect the seed from extreme temperatures. In other words, the seeds were in a place where the temperature and humidity stayed pretty stable – ideal conditions to prevent the seed from degrading. Because the seeds were in a jar, they wouldn’t be subjected to abrasion by sand or wear and tear from the wind – two factors that can quickly erode a seed away. The jar also prevented small animals from nibbling on the seeds. In other words, the seeds were protected from all of the physical things that would normally detroy it. All it had to do was maintain viability until the right conditions came along.

dates.jpgWhen the right conditions came along, they were a lot more than just right. A shot of Gibberellin (a plant hormone that kicks off germination) gave the seed a real boost. This was followed by application of other hormones, and an artificially ideal growth environment. All things considered, the fact that this seed grew is about comparable to an early first trimester baby being delivered and surviving. If everything is exactly right, there is a small chance of success.

8 Responses to “Masada date palm: the 2000 year old seed”

  1. Organic Mama Says:

    Mind-blowing and exciting as all get out – thank you for that explanation. I think that plant, with its statistical improbability, is probably a candidate for a wonder of the world!

    My lord, can you just imagine the potential stress of the scientist in charge of maintaining it? What if he over waters? Under waters?

  2. sphyrnatude Says:

    Actually, that scientist is a “she”, and she has made a career out of growing “impossible” seeds and plants. Pretty cool stuff. Apparently, when she was asked to take on this particular project, she was convinced that it wouldn’t grow….

  3. mrschili Says:

    That is VERY cool. Of course, it makes me feel even LESS competent as a gardener – I seem to only have good luck with ficus trees, African violets and spath plants – but it is cool nonetheless. Have they done – or are they planning to do – genetic tests on the resultant plant to see how the species has changed over the past 2000 years?

  4. sphyrnatude Says:

    they have already done som genetic tests. The tree is (at least) a different species from modern date palms, which may be problematic, as date palms are male and female. If it is a male tree, chances are good that the “species” will remain extinct – no females to make babies. If it is a female tree, it is possible to play games and ‘trick’ it into self-fertilizing.

    Of course, it takes a date paml something like 30 years to mature, and you can’t tell what sex it is until then….

    Apparently to all us common folk, the methusela tree looks just like an ordinary date palm, but experts can tell the difference. Among other things, the leaves on the old tree are longer…. Other differences may show up as the tree matures…..
    -Dr. Science

  5. Sandy Says:

    How DID they get it to germinate. I have some 12 year old seeds and want to see if they can come
    alive. Right now they are in water – what should I really do?

  6. sphyrnatude Says:

    Sandy, the best thing you can do (short of having access to a biology lab) is to try. Water and good soil, maybe with a dash of a root-starting hormone (commercially available at most garden stores) is reall the best bet for the home gardener.

    Don’t expect super stellar results, but you should get *some* germination – especially if the seeds were stored in a cool dry plce for the 12 years. If the storage conditions were less ideal, you’ll get less germination.

    Bottom line: give it a try, hope for the best, but don’t expect too much,
    good luck

    Dr. Science

  7. Elaine Colon Says:

    Wow! Unbeleivable The Masada Date Palm seeds are 2,0000 years old and known to be germinated.And how could grow as old as it is?

    • sphyrnatude Says:

      the conditions that they were found in play a big part. They were in a jar in the ruins of Masada, and had been in what amounts to a tightly controlled environment with constant temperature and humidity. Date palms seeds are evolved to remain dormant for long periods of time until conditions are optimal for growth, so the ideal preservation environment and the inherent ability in the seeds worked together to allow them to be germinated now. Also, the germination was a lot more complex than just sticking them in some dirt and seeing if they would grow. they were treated with hormones, special fertilizers, and a slew of other things to increase the chances of success. Out of (I think) 30 seeds that they worked on, only one grew….

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