WASHINGTON — In the foreboding, cliff-side fortress of Masada some 2,000 years ago, Jewish Zealots savored sweet dates from Judean palm trees, gazed at the Dead Sea and perhaps spit seeds onto the palace floor.
Later, Roman forces would storm Masada, triggering mass suicides by the barricaded Zealots. For centuries, the fruit seeds remained buried beneath the fallen citadel, once the luxurious palace of King Herod.
Now researchers, led by Dr. Sarah Sallon of Jerusalem’s Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center, part of the Hadassah Medical Organization, have brought an extinct date palm back to life by resurrecting the oldest seed ever.
They call it Methuselah, and they describe their carbon-dating and genetic-analysis efforts in journal Science. Using the writings of ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as a guide, the late archeologist Yigael Yadin (1917-1984) began excavating Masada in 1963.
For 40 years, Yadin’s recovered date palm seeds were housed at Bar-Ilan University, under the care of botanical archeologist Mordechai Kislev. In 2005, Hebrew University archeologist Ehud Netzer granted permission to release five seeds to Sallon.
She then asked Markus Egli at the University of Zurich’s Radio-Carbon Laboratory to figure out the age of two seeds based on a form of carbon found in all living things that decays at a predictable rate.
Next, Sallon gave the three remaining seeds to Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute of the Environment. A specialist in plants that grow in arid regions, Solowey soaked the seeds in warm water, fertilizer and hormones, and finally potted them Jan. 19, 2005 — the traditional Jewish New Year of Trees.
After eight weeks, a small green shoot emerged from one seed, and by 26 months, Methuselah had grown to a height of nearly 4 feet. Except for a few white spots on its first leaves, the plant remains healthy.
Carbon dating of two unsprouted seeds as well as original seed-shell fragments clinging to Methuselah’s roots suggested that its parents grew in ancient Judea about 2,000 years ago.
Preliminary genetic studies show that Methuselah may share some 50 percent of its DNA with modern dates. If Methuselah turns out to be female, then it might be possible to regrow the Judean date palm, revered in antiquity for its remarkably large, sweet and medicinal fruit.
As a physician turned medical plant researcher, Sallon said that she also wonders if the date tree, once known as the “Tree of Life,” may have therapeutic properties. The ancients described it as a laxative, an aphrodisiac and even a cure for cancer.
For now, though, the big question is whether Methuselah is a “boy,” or a “girl” — in which case, researchers may be sampling its fruit by 2010.