Researchers confirm age of "Methuselah" tree

JERUSALEM Thu Jun 12, 2008 9:19pm BST

1 of 3. Ancient date seeds from Masada are seen in this undated handout photograph, made available in London on June 12, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Guy Eisner/Science Magazine/Handout

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli researchers who grew a sapling from a date seed found at the ancient fortress Masada said on Thursday the seed was about 2,000 years old and may help restore a species of biblical trees.

Carbon dating confirmed that the seed -- named Methuselah after the oldest person in the bible -- was the oldest ever brought back to life, Sarah Sallon, a researcher at the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem, reported in the journal Science.

The seed came from the Judean date palm, a species that once flourished in the Jordan River Valley and has been extinct for centuries, Sallon said. It was one of a group discovered at Masada, a winter palace overlooking the Dead Sea built by King Herod in the 1st century BC.

The fortress was used by hundreds of Jewish insurgents in a revolt against Roman rule that erupted in 67 AD.

"It has survived and flourished," Sallon said. Previous attempts to grow plants from ancient seeds failed after a few days.

Since the seed was first germinated a few years ago, Sallon said there had been some doubt whether it was really 2,000 years old, like the others found at the site.

"At first we couldn't break off pieces of the seed for carbon dating," Sallon said in a telephone interview. "But when we moved the plant to a larger pot, we found fragments of the the seed on the roots, which we were able to carbon date."

This showed the tree is about 2,000-years-old and preliminary genetic studies suggest it may share about half of its genetic code with modern dates, Sallon said.

If the tree, which now stands about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall, is female, it might be able to help restore the species which once formed thick forests throughout the Jordan River Valley, she said.

The Judean date palm was also believed to provide a natural remedy for numerous ailments ranging from heart problems to constipation, something Sallon said she wants to test with further research if the tree is female and bears fruit.

"People would take the fruit and make it into a drink or tablet and take it as medicine," Sallon said.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

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