A Companion to Plant Physiology, Fifth Edition by Lincoln Taiz and Eduardo Zeiger
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Topic 23.19

The Longevity of Seeds

How long can a seed remain dormant and still remain viable? Seed longevity is of practical importance because of ongoing efforts to preserve plant genetic resources for future agricultural crops by setting up seed gene banks. Spectacular claims of dormant seeds that remained viable for thousands of years have been made, but are considered highly controversial. Extreme examples of ancient seeds that have been reported to retain their viability include submerged lotus seeds found in a 3,000-year-old boat near Tokyo, barley seeds from the 3,000-year-old tomb of King Tutankhamen, and arctic lupine seeds associated with rodent burrows determined to be 14,000 years old. In most cases, however, a scientifically rigorous examination of the data has either disproved or raised serious doubts about the claimed antiquity of the seeds (Bewley and Black 1994).

The most serious criticism is that the dates of the seeds have been inferred from the age of their immediate surroundings or associated artifacts rather than from direct measurements of the seeds themselves. This question raises the possibility that the seeds are much younger than the site at which they were found. In fact, microscopic examination of authenticated ancient cereal grains from various Middle Eastern sites has shown that cells and tissues of these seeds are no longer intact. Such seeds are clearly inviable.

Although the most sensational claims for seed longevity are almost certainly bogus, seeds of Canna compacta apparently can live for at least 600 years. Viable Canna seeds were obtained from inside a walnut in a tomb in Argentina. The Canna seeds had apparently been inserted into the immature seeds of a growing walnut fruit before the hard outer shell formed. Once the shell hardened and the nut dried out, the result was a rattle. Native people strung the rattles together to form a necklace. In this case, the seeds had to be at least as old as the walnut shell, and carbon dating of the shell indicated that it was about 600 years old (Bewley and Black 1994).

Plant collections begun during the late eighteenth century in Europe—for example, at the British Museum in London and at the Museum of Natural History in Paris—have been reliable sources of seeds for viability determinations. Cassia multijuga (false sicklepod) seeds, collected in 1776, were still viable after being tested in 1934. In 1879, W. J. Beal initiated the longest-running experiment on seed longevity by burying the seeds of 21 different species in unstoppered bottles in a sandy hilltop near the Michigan Agricultural College in East Lansing. After 100 years, only one species, Verbascum blattaria (moth mullein), remained viable.

Why are some seeds able to survive in a dormant state for hundreds of years, whereas others lose viability in less than 5 years? Almost nothing is known about the mechanisms that determine the longevity of seeds. If these mechanisms could be understood, we might someday be able to greatly increase the seed longevity of agriculturally important species and varieties, thereby enhancing our ability to preserve plant genetic resources for generations to come.

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