Jane Shen-Miller's garden consists of two plants that, for the moment, seem to be doing pretty well.
But she watches over them day and night, like a mother nursing a sick child, because those plants could hold key secrets about longevity and good health, not only for other plants but quite possibly for humans as well.
You see, these aren't just ordinary plants.
Secret to Long-Term Storage?
They were raised from seeds of the fabled lotus plant, and remarkably, they remained viable after spending nearly 500 years in a dry lakebed in China, subject to wind and sand storms, occasional flooding, and radiation. Shen-Miller, a plant biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, grew the plants from ancient seeds she collected from the lakebed in China, where she was born and raised.
They are the first mature plants ever raised from seeds known to be so old.
"Most seeds only live a few years," she says. To have remained viable for so long, the seeds must have some genetic mechanism that allows them to repair damage along the way. If she, or other scientists involved in her project, can figure out what it is, they might be able to transfer that same mechanism to other plants, thus facilitating long-term storage of crop seeds that now remain viable for only a few years.
That, alone, makes Shen-Miller's gardening efforts valuable, because more enduring seeds could improve farming in areas around the world, thus easing the constant threat of famine.
But for now, she's just trying to keep her plants alive.
"I'm very tenaciously watching my 466-year-old and my 408-year-old to see what I can do to make them stronger," she says. "They are standing straight up right now," but they are not nearly as healthy as modern lotus plants grown in her lab as controls, and that, she says, is troubling.
Big Effects of Little Radiation
Shen-Miller also collected soil from the lakebed, and a co-investigator on the project, Garman Harbottle, took the soil back to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he works as a chemist. The soil was found to be slightly radioactive and the scientists believe that low-level radiation, over such a long period, caused mutations within the seeds.
That's why, Shen-Miller says, her plants are abnormal, and she finds that very troubling because the level of radiation was so low that it would seem to be harmless.
"Human cancer patients receive 20 times as much radiation in one day as the lotus seeds get in hundreds of years," she says. That such a low dosage could have caused so much damage, she adds, is "startling."
Shen-Miller's quest to unlock the secrets of the lotus began almost by accident. She was visiting the Chinese Institute of Botany in Beijing several years ago and Chinese scientists gave her seven lotus seeds.
"I knew they were very old, because they came from a dry lakebed in the former Manchuria, in northeastern China," but she didn't know how old.
She put the seeds away and didn't think much about them. But some time later a colleague, John Southon of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, came up with a surprising bit of information. A tiny piece of the skin that surrounds the seed was dated by the lab's sophisticated carbon dating system. The seed, it turned out, was more than 1,200 years old.
That got Shen-Miller's interest.