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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 01:18 GMT
Lotus blossoms after 500 years
lotus flowers
The lotus is the sacred flower of Buddhism
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By Richard Black
BBC Science Correspondent
Scientists in America have grown seedlings from 500-year old lotus seeds from a Chinese lakebed.

It is the first time a new generation of plants of any species has been cultivated from such old seeds.

The researchers involved hope the work could lead to the development of new crop varieties.

The plants grew well enough to produce their own seedlings - remarkable given that the seeds of many other plants remain potent only for around a decade

The seeds were bought in the village of Xipaozi in north-eastern China, which lies on ground which many hundreds of years ago was submerged beneath a lake full of lotus.

The lotus fruits had fallen to the bottom of the lake and were buried.

The lake subsequently dried, and in 1958 the area was mined for clay as part of China's "Great Leap Forward", exposing the ancient fruits which are now prized by villagers - though not too highly prized, as the scientists were able to buy them for around a dollar each.

They took some of the fruits to their lab in California, and made the seeds germinate. Carbon dating revealed some of them to be 500 years old.

The plants which resulted were a little different from normal - spindly, with strange colours and misshapen leaves, deformities which the researchers believe are down to genetic damage caused by natural, low-level radiation in the soil.

Still, the plants grew well enough to produce their own seedlings - a remarkable event, given that the seeds of many other plants - including rice, soybean and wheat - remain potent only for around a decade.

The researchers hope that modern genome science will reveal the genes behind the lotus' longevity, perhaps enabling scientists in time to develop longer-lasting varieties of important agricultural crops.

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