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Fruitful Science: The Marvel of a Seed


If an engineer could make something like a seed — which can grow and produce more seeds for endless generations — it would be an absolutely phenomenal achievement. Now get the object to last for thousands of years and still work. 

Futurists envision a day when robots can be made to replicate themselves. Such “von Neumann machines,” named for Hungarian mathematician John Von Neumann (1903-1957) who thought about the challenge of building self-replicating robots, are logically possible, he surmised, but far off from current technology. Far-out futurists have envisioned self-replicating robots that might be launched from Earth on spacecraft to populate distant worlds by drawing on materials in the environment. A follow-up question is why such machines have not visited us, if space aliens are far ahead of us in technology. Where are they? That is Fermi’s Paradox. 

Von Neumann’s concepts preceded the discovery of the structure of DNA, but he realized that the concept of self-replicating machines relies on embedded instructions. A previous Evolution News article discussed progress in embedding instructions in 3-D printed objects, but those require minds to read the instructions in order to build the next copy. A true Von Neumann machine would have to be able to act on the embedded instructions automatically. Is this not a picture of what nature does with seeds, spores, and zygotes? Imitating nature’s ability to reproduce would be the ultimate biomimetics experiment. A plant seed, packaged with enough nutrients in the endosperm to allow it to travel the world and take root in a new environment, is the ultimate self-replicating machine.

How to Date a Date Palm

A team in Israel just reported work that accentuates the wonder of seeds. In four archaeological sites in the Judean desert, including Qumran and Masada, they retrieved intact seeds from date palms of the species Phoenix dactylifera — a prized species that had been extinct for centuries. It is thought that King Herod kept a stash at his palaces. The scientists collected hundreds of seeds and selected 34 of the best-looking ones. With a little coaxing using water and hormones in a sterile environment, they got seven seeds to sprout and grow. Radiocarbon showed these seeds are 2,000 years old! — and they still work. Their findings were reported February 5 in the open-access AAAS journal Science Advances. One seed was kept as a control and left unplanted.

The remaining 33 seeds were subjected to a preparatory process to increase the likelihood of seed germination using the following established methods to sprout delicate germplasm: seeds were initially soaked in water for 24 hours and in gibberellic acid (5.19 mM) (OrthoGrow, USA) for 6 hours to encourage embryonic growth. This was followed by Hormoril T8 solution (5 g/liter) (Asia-Riesel, Israel) for 6 hours to encourage rooting and KF-20 organic fertilizer (10 ml/liter) (VGI, Israel) for 12 hours. All solutions were maintained at 35°C [95° F].

Following the above procedure, one seed was found to be damaged and not planted. The remaining 32 seeds were separately potted in fresh sterile potting soil, 1 cm below the surface, and placed in a locked quarantine site at the Arava Institute of Environmental Sciences, Kibbutz Ketura, located in the southern Israel. Eight weeks after germination and periodically afterward, KF-20 (10 ml/liter) and iron chelate (10 g/liter) were added to the seedlings. Irrigation used desalinated water, as our previous study on germinating the first ancient date seed indicated that using the region’s highly mineralized water produced “tip burn” (darkening and drying of leaves). [Emphasis added.]

The team successfully germinated a 1,900-year-old seed from Masada in 2008. The new ones are the oldest seeds ever to sprout. Fittingly, they gave the trees Biblical names. Since date palms are dioecious (i.e., possessing male and female sex organs on separate plants), they named the two female plants Hannah and Judith, and the five male plants Adam, Methuselah, Jonah, Boaz, and Uriel. For the next step, they want the date palms to “date” and produce fruit with a little help. They plan to artificially pollinate them (as if the trees forgot the facts of life over the centuries). 

The scientists were eager to study the genome of this species. In addition to the natural information embedded in the seeds’ DNA, the team found evidence of artificial selection:

Date palms in the southern Levant (modern-day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan), situated between eastern and western domestication areas, have historically played an important economic role in the region and were also of symbolic and religious significance. The Kingdom of Judah (Judea) that arose in the southern part of the historic Land of Israel in the 11th century BCE was particularly renowned for the quality and quantity of its dates. These so-called “Judean dates” grown in plantations around Jericho and the Dead Sea were recognized by classical writers for their large size, sweet taste, extended storage, and medicinal properties. While evidence suggests that Judean date culture continued during the Byzantine and Arab periods (4th to 11th century CE), further waves of conquest proved so destructive that by the 19th century, no traces of these historic plantations remained.

In 2008, we reported the germination of a 1900-year-old date seed recovered from the historical site of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. In the current study, six additional ancient date seeds from archaeological sites in the Judean desert were germinated, bringing to seven the number of ancient genotypes genetically analyzed using molecular markers. In addition, morphometric analysis was used to compare the size and shape of ungerminated ancient date seeds with modern varieties and wild dates.

This study, which confirms the long-term survival of date palm seeds, provides a unique opportunity to rediscover the origins of a historic date palm population that existed in Judea 2000 years ago. 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.

New Scientist adds:

The team used radiocarbon dating to reveal the seven seeds were all around 2000 years old. Genetic analysis showed that several of them came from female date palms that were pollinated by male palms from different areas. This hints that the ancient Judean people who lived in the area at the time and cultivated the trees used sophisticated plant breeding techniques. 

One hopes the fruits from the extinct species will be as sweet and delicious as ancient writers like Herodotus, Galen, Pliny the Elder, and Josephus described them. Dates from the Judean deserts were exported around the Roman Empire, and now moderns will be able to enjoy them again — assuming these living Von Neumann machines continue to bear viable replicators (seeds).

More than Information

It’s a spectacular case of self-replicating automata lasting two thousand years. Consider the beneficial aspects of seeds. Evolutionists tend to dismiss life’s significance. To Richard Dawkins, humans are mere “throwaway survival machines” who only exist for selfish genes to replicate themselves. As one reductionist put it, “a bird is just an egg’s way of making another egg.” Those who appreciate design have a much grander view of life.

Think of what seeds do for others, not just for themselves. Date seeds make sweet fruit. They create beauty with their tall trunks and spreading branches. They provide safe nesting sites for birds. How remarkable it is that plants and other photosynthetic organisms take in energy from a star 93 million miles away, and generate oxygen for an inanimate atmosphere that circulates around the world, carrying the essential gas to support the metabolism of animals. In turn, animals’ waste product carbon dioxide becomes a nutrient for the plants. Every living thing has a role to play in an interconnected, functioning environment, an ecological network of beauty and variety that enriches the whole planet. These benefits extend far beyond survival, or a “seed’s way of making another seed.” And it all begins with embedded instructions from a designing intelligence, the sine qua non of self-replicating machines.

Photo credit: Dates, by abcdz2000 [CC BY-SA].