Scientists leave no date stone unturned

A team from the Zayed Complex for Herbal Research and Traditional Medicine in Abu Dhabi has found that an extract from date pits had virus-killing properties.

They are the building blocks of a nation, a nutrition-packed morsel whose virtues are extolled throughout the region. But dates, and those eating them, have always had one stony problem: the pit. That may be about to change due to two discoveries by scientists. One could turn date pits into a powerful medicine; the other may eliminate them altogether. A team led by Dr Sabah Jassim at the Zayed Complex for Herbal Research and Traditional Medicine in Abu Dhabi found that an extract from date pits had virus-killing properties. "The symbol of the Arab world and of the UAE is the date palm," Dr Jassim said, "but the pits are a waste material. Nobody's going to eat the stone. But when we looked at it, we found it has very strong antiviral compounds." The pit extract was able to kill a bacteria-eating virus in less than a minute, the study published in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found. Anti-viral agents that work in less than five minutes are regarded as excellent.

"So this one is a very strong antiviral agent, if you compare it with other antivirals I've seen in other plants," Dr Jassim said. Now the hunt is on for a date-based formula that could heal infections such as herpes simplex 1, which causes cold sores. "I believe the herpes simplex virus can be killed this way," he said, "like with a gel or a cream for somebody who has this around his lips." One advantage of a date-based virus remedy would be the abundance of the raw material in the Arab world. "This is something inexpensive," Dr Jassim said. "Why not make some money from that for something useful?" That raw material, however, may soon be rather less plentiful if a project by the date palm development research unit at the UAE University in Al Ain comes to fruition. There, thanks to a chance discovery three years ago, scientists are hard at work cloning a new breed of palm that bears only pitless dates.

The seedless dates were found on a farm, on a tree that, crucially, had been grown from seed rather than from culture. Because they have reproduced sexually rather than by cloning, seed-grown trees are far more likely to throw up new varieties. "Nature from time to time gives you new clones," said Dr Abdelouahhab Zaid, of the date palm unit. The fruit is closest to the khalas variety, commonly found around the region, especially in Oman, turning a dark brown when it ripens. The scientists are now growing clones of the seedless date, but it is not an overnight process. Hundreds of plants are needed before commercial production can begin. Those already growing will not bear fruit for another four to five years and it will be another eight to 10 years before the new variety reaches the shops. But when it does, Dr Zaid expects it to be a hit. "For Muslims going to Haj, they are often walking around barefoot and living mainly on dates," he said. "But if you have seedless dates, this will be much safer than the thousands of seeds discarded on the floor." The pitless dates could also open up a new market for people unfamiliar with the fruit.