The Secrets of the Lotus

Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters

SCIENCE AND mysticism converge around the sacred lotus plant, Nelumbo nucifera. The beautiful flower afloat on ponds throughout Asia (not to be confused with waterlilies) has been cultivated in China for at least 4,000 years. It looms large in both Buddhist and Hindu art. Its various parts are used in exotic cuisine, herbal teas, and traditional medicines. Lotus leaves repel dirt and water. Its flowers generate heat. Its fruit is covered with antibiotics. And now scientists from UCLA and their colleagues in China have sequenced the sacred lotus genome. Their interest sprang from the discovery in the 1990s that centuries-old lotus seeds could still germinate, and some are alive after 1,300 years. Jane Shen-Miller, co-author of the study published earlier this month, says there are lessons to be learned that could be important for the longevity of other plants, but also, eventually, for humans. "If our genes could repair disease as well as the lotus's genes, we would have healthier aging," she said. "We need to learn about its repair mechanisms and about its biochemical, physiological, and molecular properties, but the lotus genome is now open to everybody."