By Katherine J. Wu, Smithsonianmag.com
Nestled in the courtyard of China’s Gu Guanyin Buddhist Temple is a ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) that’s been quietly shedding its leaves for 1,400 years. From its unassuming outpost in the Zhongnan Mountains, the tree has outlived the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the scourge of the Black Plague. It saw electricity revolutionize human history and watched the world’s greatest powers descend into the chaos of war twice over.
This long-lived tree will probably still be around for decades, centuries or even millennia to come. For the ginkgo, and perhaps other plants, it seems “the default condition … is immortality,” says Howard Thomas, a plant biologist from Aberystwyth University, to Science magazine’s Erin Malsbury.
Now, researchers are starting to uncover some of the botanical secrets behind the ginkgo’s astounding longevity—a concept we fast-aging humans may struggle to fathom, let alone replicate for ourselves.
Per a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ginkgo trees don’t decline much as they age. Instead, the trees continue to pump out protective chemicals; unlike many other organisms, they don’t seem cellularly programmed to die.