The World’s Oldest Seeds Which Have Sprung Back Into Life


Can seeds which have been lying dormant for 32,000 years can germinate? No problem!

Nicole Buckler reports.

For those of us with a fascination in all things fauna and flora, gardening can be a healthful and satisfying pastime. But interest in the natural world is not just for gardeners and farmers. Scientists all over the world are studying our natural world. And what they have found out lately is astonishing. Seeds are fascinating little things, and here’s why.

The Narrow-Leafed Campion of Siberia

© National Academy of Sciences

The oldest seed that has grown into a viable plant was Silene stenophylla (narrow-leafed campion), an Arctic flower native to Siberia. Radiocarbon dating has confirmed that the seeds are around 32,000 years old. Yep, you read that right.

In 2007, more than 600,000 frozen mature and immature seeds were found buried in 70 squirrel hibernation burrows 38 metres (125 ft) below the permafrost near the banks of the Kolyma River. They are thought to have been buried by Arctic ground squirrels, which damaged the mature seeds to prevent germination in the burrow. However, three of the immature seeds contained viable embryos. Scientists extracted the embryos and successfully germinated plants in vitro which grew, flowered and created viable seeds of their own.

The shape of the flowers differed from that of the modrn plant, with the petals being longer and more widely spaced than modern versions of the plant. Seeds produced by the regenerated plants germinated at a 100% success rate, compared with 90% for modern plants. 32,000 years does a lot to a plant!

 The Judean Date Palm of Israel

The Judean Date Palm at Ketura, Israel, nicknamed Methuselah.

When the ruins of an ancient Jewish fortress near the Dead Sea were excavated, many interesting things were found. One of them was some 2000-year-old seeds, which fascinated scientists, and they wondered if germination of the seed was possible.

Three seeds fell into the care of a researcher at the Hadassah Medical Organisation in Jerusalem, by the name of Sarah Sallon. Sallon and her team set about germinating the ancient seed, with much excitement and trepidation. It turns out that the 2000-year-old seeds were a native to the area, a relative of modern date palms. One seed was nervously planted in special conditions. Parts of the remaining seeds were carefully wrapped up and sent away for radio-carbon dating at a state-of-the-art facility in Switzerland.

After germination, the date plant happily sprung into life, baffling the researchers. They are unsure as to why the seed was able to grow after lying dormant for 2000 years. However their best guess is that the heat and severe dryness of the desert of Masada preserved the specimen.

The plant has subsequently been named the Methuselah plant, and it still grows today, a testament to the fascinating world of life on earth. The researchers await a DNA analysis of the plant, and are excited to know how the plant of 2000 years ago relates to today’s date palms of the region. Early genetic tests show that the plant is about 50% different to modern date palms in Egypt, Morocco and Iraq, where such plants have been harvested for centuries. But the fact that the seeds could have been hanging off a date palm at the time Jesus was said to have lived in the region, has human beings fascinated.

1300 Year-old Lotus Seeds of China

As for the third-oldest seed germinated, the lotus seed takes the prize. In 1920, some of the seeds were found in lake sediments in China’s northeast region. At the time it wasn’t possible to date the seeds, but it was felt that they were probably quite ancient. Some of the seeds were planted and germinated without fuss. By the time the technology became available to carbon-date the seeds, in the 1990s, researchers were stunned to discover that the seeds were in fact 1300 years old.

Scientists studying the seeds were awed by the fact that the lotus seeds seemed to germinate without much trouble. They hypothesized that the amazing ability of the seeds to stay viable for so long might be due to a special enzyme they have on board. The enzyme is responsible for repairing damaged cells inside it before the seeds go on to germinate. The discovery of this process has caught the imagination of scientists all over the world. Such a process can add to our growing knowledge of the aging process. And of course how to slow it down for those of us who are reaching for our retirement funds!

The Oldest Food Cache

As for the oldest food stash in the world, that would exist thanks to an inventive and industrious little rodent which lived 17 million years ago. This little ratty (or whatever he was) managed to hoard a pile of nuts in its burrow, making it the oldest food larder ever discovered on earth. Over time, the 1800 nuts have fossilised, giving scientists at the University of Bonn lots to discuss. The stash was actually found by a miner deep in an open-cast mine near Garzweiler. The seeds were discovered to be from a kind of tree now extinct in the region, a relative of the sweet chestnut tree. It grew well in Central Europe at the time of the Miocene Epoch when the climate was warmer. Now it only grows in Asia and on some parts of the American coastline.

The rodent was very busy in its life. It had built a series of tunnels for its winter food supply. But it didn’t get a chance to eat them, so it seems we will never know what happened to the hard working little creature. The habits of this little rodent were compared to its modern-day equivalent, the black-bellied hamster that lives in Central Europe. This little furry friend can store up to 90 kilograms of food like potatoes and peas every year.

Scientists say that the hamster’s stash is the oldest food cache in the fossil record. That is one big achievement for one little rodent.

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