Mariana Cook’s book, “Faces of Science,” portrays 77 scientists who have made many of the most important discoveries of our time. Each photograph is accompanied by a personal essay written by the scientists. The portraits in this online series are accompanied by excerpts from those essays. For more information, please visit Mariana Cook’s website: www.cookstudio.com.
Though recollections of my youth have been blurred by the passage of time, I remember well the first day of my fourth-grade class in Columbus, Ohio. Our teacher (Ms. Tinapple, as I recall) asked each of us to report to the class what we “wanted to be” when we “got big.” The girls’ goals—to be teachers, secretaries, or nurses—all focused on helping others. Some of the boys wanted to be basketball or football stars. When it came to my turn, I announced without the slightest hesitation, “ I want to be a professor.” (As I think back, it strikes me as interesting that I chose “professor” rather than “scientist”—probably because it seemed impossibly bold for me to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a “real scientist.”)
I studied agriculture in college, at a time when it was not a popular subject for a girl, earned a doctorate at Michigan State, and have had a satisfying career in plant science. Some years ago, I was fortunate to become interested in the Sacred Lotus (variety China antique), the showy water plant that in Buddhism symbolizes purity, emerging from the mud to rise high about the water. Used by Chinese doctors for over 4.000 years, lotus seeds and stems are also delicious, fresh or cooked.
I began my work with seven seeds from an ancient lake, now dried, in Liaoning Province, northeastern China. After storing them for 10 years in my lab, I tested their germination. The oldest that sprouted dated from 1,300 years ago (as shown by 14C radiocarbon). Remarkably, this still is the oldest living seed in the world. To sprout, it had to repair hundreds of years of stress. Understanding this repair could provide insight into the aging process in all biology, including our own.
How does a lotus seed maintain its unsurpassed longevity? Its greatest asset is an outer coat, impervious to air and water. Lotus seeds can be soaked in water for a year or more, sprouting only if their coats are cracked. The coats also contain chemicals that prevent bacterial and fungal invasion. Unlike known proteins in embryos of other plants, 60 percent of those in lotus embryos are heat hardy, even above the boiling point of water. These proteins, and other biochemicals, seem to play important roles in repairing age-caused damage.
In 2002 a Paris TV documentary invited my husband and me to film an hour long episode on Lotus, Des Graines d’Eternite. In far northeastern China, we visited a lake planted with China antique, offspring of the ancient seeds, where alluring lotus blooms again adorn the landscape as they did a thousand years ago.