February 5, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Seeds from Time of Christ Sprout, Grow Trees in Israel

Trees of a now-extinct date palm celebrated for its fruit have sprouted from 2,000-year-old seeds recovered from Israel.

How robust is a seed? A seed is a package of life, containing all the instructions and the initial nourishment to grow into an adult plant that will produce more seeds. In size, seeds range from the proverbial mustard seed or smaller to the coconut, which can cross oceans within its hard-shelled husk.

Date seeds, growing in clusters from certain varieties of palm trees, have long been relished for their taste and medicinal properties. Date palms are familiar sights to travelers in deserts of Israel and southern California. One particular variety of date palm named Phoenix dactylifera, “described in antiquity for the quality, size, and medicinal properties of its fruit,” had been lost for centuries, say Sallon et al., publishing in Science Advances.

Described by classical writers including Theophrastus, Herodotus, Galen, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Josephus, these valuable plantations produced dates attributed with various qualities including large size, nutritional and medicinal benefits, sweetness, and a long storage life, enabling them to be exported throughout the Roman Empire. Several types of Judean dates are also described in antiquity including the exceptionally large “Nicolai” variety measuring up to 11 cm.

Date palms have been farmed since antiquity. Photos by David Coppedge.

Though not the largest or most robust seeds, date seeds from this species have been recovered from four archaeological sites in southern Israel, including Qumran and Herod’s famous palace at Masada. They grew to maturity and their genomes have been sequenced. Alice Klein reports in New Scientist that seven trees are growing from the two-millennia-old seeds!

The seeds – the oldest ever germinated – were among hundreds discovered in caves and in an ancient palace built by King Herod the Great in the 1st century BC.

Sarah Sallon at the Louis L Borick Natural Medicine Research Center in Jerusalem and her colleagues previously grew a single date palm tree (Phoenix dactylifera) from one of the seeds. The team has now managed to grow a further six.

The ancient seeds were prepared by soaking them in water, adding hormones that encourage germination and rooting, then planting them in soil in a quarantined area.

Klein speculates that the hot, dry conditions of the Judean desert contributed to their longevity. Heat, though, usually speeds up decay of delicate plant tissues.

Like many plants, date palms are dioecious, with male and female organs on separate plants. The team members gave the plants Biblical names. The two females were named Judith and Hannah. The male trees were named Uriel, Jonah, Boaz, Adam, and Methuselah. Klein writes,

Sallon and her colleagues found that the seeds of ancient Judean dates are larger than modern varieties, which is often indicative of bigger fruit. They now hope to recreate the ancient fruit by pollinating females with males.

Poring through the genomic data, the team sees evidence of sophisticated breeding and agricultural practices by farmers in the Roman era. They believe that mixtures of North African and Judean varieties were intentionally selected for quality of the fruit and long storage capacity.

These findings, in accord with the region’s location between east and west date palm gene pools, suggest that sophisticated agricultural practices may have contributed to the Judean date’s historical reputation. Given its exceptional storage potentialities, the date palm is a remarkable model for seed longevity research.

Date palm farm beside the Dead Sea, over 1,000 feet below sea level.

Research is continuing on the trees and their fruits. Even though artificial selection is evident in the care and production of these species of date palms, the authors snuck in some Darwinism:

Chuck-in-the-Box pops up uninvited.

As new information on specific gene-associated traits (e.g., fruit color and texture) is found, we hope to reconstruct the phenotypes of this historic date palm, identify genomic regions associated with selection pressures over recent evolutionary history, and study the properties of dates produced by using ancient male seedlings to pollinate ancient females. In doing so, we will more fully understand the genetics and physiology of the ancient Judean date palm once cultivated in this region.

As usual, the Darwin part is pure speculation requiring futureware.

What engineer could ever make a seed? To devise a 10cm object that can grow into a tall tree and make more objects that can reproduce themselves generation after generation – that has to be considered a truly remarkable feat of design. And then, to have it survive 2,000 years in the heat and grow again seems impossible. If engineers ever achieved anything like that, they would surely be insulted to be ignored, and told that their inventions happened by chance.

 

 

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