2,000-year-old seed set to bear fruit in three years

Ancient "Judean date seed" found on Masada may yield "medicinal" bounty.

dates 88 (photo credit: )
dates 88
(photo credit: )
A 2,000-year-old date seed discovered at Masada four decades ago may provide new cures to numerous ailments, Israeli scientists say, after making significant advances, against all odds, in producing fruit from the seed. Having been germinated, astoundingly, by an Israeli team more than three years ago, and kept alive since, the "Judean date" sapling appears likely (but not certain) to yield a now-extinct species of date that was renowned in ancient times as a treatment for heart disease, chest problems, the spitting of blood, weakened memory and other medical conditions, possibly even symptoms of cancer and depression. The seed was discovered during the 1960s archaeological excavations of Masada by Prof. Yigael Yadin, an eminent Israeli archeologist, political leader and the second IDF chief of General Staff. The Judean Dead Sea region was famous for its extensive and high-quality date culturing in the first century CE. High summer temperatures and low precipitation at Masada contributed to the seed's exceptional longevity. The plant's current location is being kept secret because of its great scientific and financial value. It could produce fruit at the age of seven years, according to Dr. Sarah Sallon, a physician and director of Hadassah University Medical Center's Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Center (NMRC) in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem. She heads the team that succeeded in planting, germinating and growing the date seed and describes its findings and hopes for it in the Friday issue of the prestigious journal Science. The date project is part of the NMRC's Middle Eastern Medicinal Plant project aimed at conserving, developing and researching the rich legacy of medicinal plants in Israel. The extinct "Judean date" is regarded by NMRC as having particular importance. The ancient seed in Sallon's experiment was procured from Bar-Ilan University, and germination was handled by Dr. Elaine Soloway, an expert on desert agriculture at the Arava Institute of the Environment at Kibbutz Ketura, in the Arava valley. When the seedling was 15 months old, direct radio-carbon dating on shell fragments performed by Dr. Egli of Zurich University showed an age compatible with the Roman siege of Masada almost 2,000 years ago, thus making it the oldest seed ever to be germinated. Early genetic analysis of the seedling - performed by Dr. Yuval Cohen of the Volcani Institute at Beit Dagan - shows differences from modern cultivated date species. Further analysis is planned in the hope of discovering particular genetic characteristics that made the Judean dates famous both as a prized source of food and as a valuable medicine, Sallon told The Jerusalem Post. "Our next stage will be to grow more dates, in the hope of better understanding their genetics and possibly breeding the ancient date as a modern one," she continued. "We need to reintroduce ancient crops and plants that once flourished in this region and to investigate them scientifically for their properties. As much as Hadassah is involved in the most modern medical technologies, it also promotes our desire to discover new cures for diseases out of ancient sources."