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A Moment of Science

Extinct Isn’t Always Forever

Usually we think of extinction as the end of the line for members of the domain of life. Interestingly, though, there are exceptions.

Close-up of green dates still on the tree

Photo: Harshad Sharma (flickr)

Would you eat a date from 2,000-year-old seeds?

Okay, picture this: It’s 1973. Archaeologists are excavating the ruins of an ancient Israeli fortress. They find a clay jar full of date pits, which end up in a storage drawer at Tel Aviv University.

Now fast-forward a few decades to 2005, when a scientist named Dr. Sarah Sallon decides to finally do something with the seeds. The university gives her five to work with. Carbon dating and genetic analysis reveal that they are, indeed, the 2,000 year old remains of a now extinct Judean date palm!

Next, researchers bring in Dr. Elaine Solowey, a horticulture scientist who specializes in getting tricky plants to grow. After soaking the seeds in warm water, fertilizer and hormones, she plants them!

Although the tree has sprouted and blossomed, it turned out to be male. To produce fruit, scientists will have to use it to cross pollinate a modern female date palm relative.

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