Scientists grew a tiny green shoot from a 1,288-year-old lotus seed from China. It is believed to be the oldest seed ever germinated, and it may yield clues on how to slow aging.
“This sleeping beauty, which was already there when Marco Polo came to China in the 13th century, must have a powerful genetic system to delay its aging,” said Jane ShenMiller, a plant physiologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It’s unbelievable it could sleep for thousands of years, and in four days, a little green shoot emerged.”
The research, reported in the November issue of the American Journal of Botany, began in 1982, when Shen-Miller obtained seven brown, oval-shaped lotus seeds, each about the size of a large marble, from the Beijing Institute of Botany.
The seeds came from a dry lake bed that once had been the site of a lotus lake cultivated by Buddhists who consider the flowering plant a sacred symbol of purity.
In 1983, Shen-Miller filed through the hard shells of four of the seeds and watched three of them sprout. She then dried and burned the seedlings so she could use radiocarbon dating to establish the ages, the oldest of which was 1,288 years old. The second was 684 years old; the third was 755. The fourth could not be dated.
The researchers cited several reasons for the seeds’ longevity, including a thick shell that protected the seed from air and water and the presence of L-isoaspartyl methyltransferase enzyme, identified in the 1980s by UCLA biochemistry Professor Steven Clarke as the first proteinrepair enzyme.
Clarke, a specialist in the chemistry of aging, marveled at the seeds’ ability to “fend off all age-related damage” and attributed it to the enzyme. The enzyme is found throughout nature, including in humans.
Clarke said further analysis could offer clues to plant and animal longevity. “As you look at these seeds further, my guess is they’ll have other repair processes,” Clarke said. “This becomes a wonderful way of finding out about potentially new repair processes that may be relevant to aging in other organisms including humans.”
Last year, Shen-Miller took the remaining three seeds and subjected them to a newer dating method that preserves all but a fraction of a seed’s outer coat. They were dated at 416 years, 332 years and 95.
She planted the 332-year-old seed in the courtyard of her house, where it sprouted 20 to 30 leaves and looked pretty much like a modern-day lotus.
“The only difference was the leaf dimension was smaller. Otherwise, it was so vigorous, it’s just amazing,” she said.
The plant survived nine months and died before it had a chance to flower in its second year, she said. Shen-Miller blames her own gardening.
Researchers ground up part of the 416-year-old seed for analysis and “what we found was this repair enzyme was just as active in that seed as it was in a modern seed,” Clarke said.
The research could help solve world hunger by improving repair processes in grain and seed stocks, Shen-Miller and Clarke said.