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Scientists Grow Plant From World's Oldest Seed

Scientists have grown a plant from a 2,000-year-old seed excavated from the ruins of Masada, the ancient Jewish fortress near the Dead Sea. VOA's Jessica Berman reports on the effort to grow the world's oldest seed.

Until now, the oldest seed ever germinated was that of a 1,300-year-old lotus plant.

But in this week's issue of Science, researcher Sarah Sallon of the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem and her colleagues describe their work with a 2,000 - year-old seed found at an archaeological dig at Masada, an ancient fortress built by King Herod on a cliff that overlooks the Dead Sea.

It is there that Jewish zealots committed suicide en mass rather than be captured in a siege by troops of the Roman Empire.

"We succeeded in germinating an ancient date seed that was 2,000 - years-old," said Sarah Sallon. "It's the oldest seed ever to be grown."

Archaeologists unearthed 70 native plant seeds, along with the date seed, 40 years ago from the rubble of Masada.

In 2005, researchers, including Sallon, obtained three seeds. They planted one of them and sent fragments of two other seeds to Switzerland for radio-carbon dating.

Further analysis of tiny seed fragments clinging to the roots of the date plant when it was transplanted 15 months later confirmed the age of the seed.

Experts say they don't know why they were able to grow the seed after 2,000 years, but they speculate the extreme heat and dryness of Masada preserved it.

In an interview with Science, Sallon says researchers have done a preliminary genetic analysis of the palm which they named the Methuselah plant.

She says scientists are anxious to see how closely the seed is related to date palms in Morocco, Egypt, and Iraq where dates are plentiful.

"Preliminary genetic analysis shows about 50 percent difference," she said. "But we need more ancient dates and genetic material from more germinated seeds before we can really say how different it is from modern dates."

Sallon says the ancient Jews used dates for medicinal purposes and by studying the 2,000-year-old seeds she hopes to make practical as well as historical discoveries.