Scientists grew trees from 2000-year-old seeds and the outcome may be delicious

Sticky, caramel, unctuous deliciousness, to be exact.

Ratnakorn Piyasirisorost/Moment/Getty Images

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire dominated the world, and it had a favorite fruit — dates.

Ancient dates — varieties of the fruit that eventually led to the basis of the bacon-wrapped treats we know and love today — were a coveted commodity two millennia ago. Now, researchers have successfully germinated some of those ancient seeds, recreating the tasty fruit-bearing trees of yore and their caramel-like bounty.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe how they were able to grow date-palm trees from six 2,000-year-old seeds found in southern Israel.

The seeds are a little different to modern-day date-palm seeds — they are “significantly longer and wider than both modern date varieties and wild date palms,” say the researchers. But despite their differences and their age, they still sprouted.

While the plants are still just seedlings — meaning they have not yet borne fruit — we have some clues about what to expect. The seeds’ larger size suggests that they were cultivated by farmers, and not wild — and research has shown that both “fruits and seeds tend to be larger in domesticated fruit crops compared with their wild ancestors.” That means big dates.

Six ancient, germinated date palm seeds before they were planted.

Guy Eisner

Researchers don’t know exactly how the seeds managed to last this long and still be viable. But they think it is likely to do with the weather conditions in the region they were found. Seeds last longer in a dry, inactive state. And the low precipitation and very low humidity around southern Israel's Dead Sea may have set up the seeds to last all these years. Durability might also be a special adaptation of the date palm, helping it disperse more seeds in “extreme desert conditions,” the researchers hypothesize.

The region the seeds are from — formerly known as the Kingdom of Judea — was “particularly renowned for the quality and quantity of its dates,” the researchers say.

These “Judean dates” grew in large plantations near Jericho and the Dead Sea. Their claims to fame were their “large size, sweet taste, extended storage, and medicinal properties.” In other words, they are delicious, huge, last ages, and may even be good for you.

Date palm trees may be one of the earliest domesticated tree crops, dating back as far as 7,000 years — and the Kingdom of Judea were fans. But “waves of conquest proved so destructive that by the 19th century, no traces of these historic plantations remained,” the researchers say.

Researchers grew six tree seedlings from 2,000-year-old date palm seeds. They have yet to bear fruit, but watch this space.

Guy Eisner

This isn’t the first time the team has been able to germinate a handful of ancient date palm seeds. In 2008, they conducted a similar study with a single date palm seed. The new study confirms the (incredibly) long-term survival of date-palm seeds, the researchers say. It also gives scientists a way to “rediscover” the origins of this historic tree and hints at how thousands of years of agriculture has brought an ancient fruit to what we buy in the grocery store today.

“The characteristics of the Judean date palm may shed light on aspects of ancient cultivation that contributed to the quality of its fruit, and is thus of potential relevance to the agronomic improvement of modern dates.”

"Modern dates" like the ones that are wrapped in bacon, or stuffed with cream cheese (or both, no judgement), that is. Our ancestors would be so proud.

Abstract: Germination of 2000-year-old seeds of Phoenix dactylifera from Judean desert archaeological sites provides a unique opportunity to study the Judean date palm, described in antiquity for the quality, size, and medicinal properties of its fruit, but lost for centuries. Microsatellite genotyping of germinated seeds indicates that exchanges of genetic material occurred between the Middle East (eastern) and North Africa (western) date palm gene pools, with older seeds exhibiting a more eastern nuclear genome on a gradient from east to west of genetic contributions. Ancient seeds were significantly longer and wider than modern varieties, supporting historical records of the large size of the Judean date. 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.
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