March 14, 2002 -- 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.
Using a file, she cut into the skin of the seed, a technique used by gardeners around the world, to see if she could make it germinate. Amazingly, the seed sprouted.
It didn't live long, but it became a famous seed among plant biologists because it was by far the oldest living seed whose date could be established.
Sprouting After a Long Sleep
"So we went back to China, to that same old lake where the seeds had come from," says Shen-Miller, who had become the leader of an international team of scientists. The scientists combed through the soil of the dry lake, and collected 20 seeds, all of which have been dated at between 200 and 500 years old.
Shen-Miller spent the following year, 1997, studying the art of cultivating lotus plants. The next year, while working in Germany, she got the first of the seeds to germinate, but it died after one season.
"Then I sprouted three more, one each year, here at UCLA," she says. "One survived one whole season, and came back from winter dormancy, but it died early. I wasn't doing something right."
She had better luck with the next two.
"They are standing straight up right now," she says. "They are alive. So I'm just watching them and trying to help them this year so they will get enough photosynthesis in the leaves to be transported down to the root, which is a big, big root."
She has 15 seeds left, which she has offered to give to other scientists who might be able to help discover why the seeds have survived all these years, even if somewhat damaged.
If they succeed, they will add another facet to the legends of the Chinese lotus. The entire plant — roots, flowers, huge leaves and all — is valued as a food resource. It is also used by doctors in China to treat a wide range of ailments from nosebleeds to heat stroke.
It cures, Shen-Miller says, but "they don't know what's doing the curing. So it's important to find out what the active ingredient in these plants is."
And beyond all that, the lotus holds great religious significance, especially among Buddhists.
"It symbolizes purity," she says. Perhaps that's because of the muddy and algae-ridden lakes where it thrives in China.
"Coming from a lowly origin of mucky-muck," Shen-Miller says, "it rises high above the water untainted."
Her first seed "slept for more than a thousand years" before she cut a gash in its skin and it sprang to life, Shen-Miller says. It would be useful, she adds, to learn how it managed to hang around for so many centuries.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.