Brussels, 22 Sep 2006
Scientists at the Millennium Seed Bank, an international plant conservation initiative operated by the Royal Botanic Gardens in the UK, have succeeded in inducing 200 year old seeds to germinate. The seeds were taken to the UK from South Africa by a Dutch merchant on a Prussian ship in 1803. They were found by Roelof van Gelder, a guest researcher from the Royal Dutch Library, in a notebook stored in the National Archives.
As the seeds had been kept in very poor conditions, the team was very surprised by the success. 'This is a fantastic result,' said seed ecologist Matt Daws. 'The seed was so old and had been stored in some dubious conditions, including a ship and the Tower of London. We really did not expect to get anything.'
Indeed, 29 of the 32 seed species found failed to germinate. This in spite of detailed preparations intended to reproduce conditions in the Cape region. The region is regularly ravished by fire, which is a signal to germinate. Scientists replicated the effects of fire by chipping off the hard coats of some seeds, and bubbling smoke over others.
The three successes are Liparia villosa, a legume, Leucospermum, and a species not yet identified - an acacia. 'We'll have to wait until it flowers to find out what species it is,' said Mr Daws. 'If it's a tree, we may have a long wait.'
When the plants are more mature, the scientists intend to make genetic and genomic analyses, comparing these old specimens with modern-day equivalents to show how the plants have adapted over the past 200 years.
For Kew's scientists, this project has been of more than historical interest. 'According to models of seed survival, even the toughest cereal seeds should have died after so long in such conditions', said Mr Daws. 'If seeds can survive that long in poor conditions, then that's good news for those in the Millennium Seed Bank stored under ideal conditions.'
In 2002, scientists in the US germinated lotus seeds that had been carbon-dated as 500 years old, and an Israeli team also claims to have grown a date palm from a 2,000 year old seed.
The Millennium Seed Bank Project is a global conservation programme intended to collect and conserve 10 per cent (over 24,000 species) of the world's seed-bearing flora by 2010. The project will also involve research on improving seed conservation, and will make seeds available for research and species re-introduction into the wildFurther information: