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Michigan State University scientists start a new chapter in a 142-year-old seed experiment

Seed experiment
Posted at 2:22 PM, May 05, 2021

The first hole the scientists dug was in the wrong place.

They were looking for a bottle, one of 20 buried in the fall of 1879 by a botanist named William James Beal in a secret location on the campus of State Agricultural College, the school that later became Michigan State University.

The bottle and the seeds inside are part of one of the longest-running scientific experiments in the world, an effort to figure out how long seeds can survive in the soil. The experiment has been going for 142 years and is set to run for 79 more.

But first, they had to find it.

Finding a bottle that was buried over 140 years ago

"We ended up digging a pretty big hole in the ground, and there was no bottle there," said David Lowry, an assistant professor of plant science at MSU and one of the younger scientists picked to see the experiment through the next few decades. "And the snow started coming down and the birds started chirping so we knew dawn was coming and so we were kind of anxious to get the job done."

Frank Telewski, a professor of plant science and curator of the botanical garden that Beal started more than a century ago, was the only member of the group who had been present at the excavation of the previous bottle 21 years earlier.

He had a 32-year-old map and, it turned out, he had it turned around. They recalibrated.

"We kept hitting things like rocks and tree roots and they were kind of these false alarms," said Marjorie Weber, an assistant professor of plant science at MSU.

She was on her stomach digging through the dirt with her hands when she found it — a bottle that last saw sunlight when Rutherford B. Hayes was president.

"We were all just really relieved," she said. "We feel like we're stewards of this experiment."

Beal was a practical scientist who did groundbreaking work in corn hybridization. His seed experiment was meant to answer a pressing question for farmers in an era before effective chemical herbicides: How long will the seeds of common agricultural weeds last in the soil?

Beal 1.jpg
Botanist William J. Beal

He'd filled each bottle with sand and more than 1,000 seeds from 21 plant species and Beal dug up a bottle every five years to see how many would sprout. His successors extended the waiting period to 10 years and then to 20.

"The amazing thing about this is that Beal had this vision to set up an experiment that would outlive him," Lowry said.

The practical problem that drove the experiment is less pressing, but how long seeds can survive in the soil is still an open question with implications both for agriculture and for conservation.

"People put seeds in storage and they put them at low temperatures and real low seed moisture content, and we know that depending on the species they can live for a very long time, but that’s not what goes on in nature." Carol Baskin, a professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Kentucky said in an interview last summer.

Baskin is not involved in Michigan State experiment, but she says the experiment is crucial.

"Although we can say it’s possible that they can live a long time, how do they prove that they can live a long time?" she said. "And I think that’s where the Beal study is so important because that study conclusively shows that seeds, at least a few species, live for over 100 years. There’s no doubt about the age of the seeds in the Beal study."

Two species from the bottle dug up in 2000 sprouted — close to half of the seeds from a flowering plant called moth mullein and a single low mallow.

The seeds from this year's bottle, dug from the ground on April 15, were planted in a tray of soil and placed inside a growth chamber in MSU's Plant Science building.

The first seedling sprouted on Friday.

Getting the news that one of the seeds had sprouted was "just such a special moment."

"I'm a plant scientist. I see plants every single day of my life. It's what I do all summer long, is measure plants out in the field. You'd think it just would be anything to me anymore," said Lars Brudvig, an asosciate professor of plant biology at Michigan state.

He said that getting the news that one of the seeds had sprouted was "just such a special moment."

Verbascum, plants growing from 140 year old seeds
Seedlings sprouting from seeds buried in 1879 by botanist William J. Beal. The bottle containing the seeds was unearthed on April 15, 2021.

The excavation of the bottle had been planned for last spring. The pandemic pushed it back, but the researchers have agreed to dig up the next bottle in 2040 to get back on track, Brudvig said.

With four bottles remaining, the experiment is slated to run until 2100.

This story was originally published by Matthew Miller on Scripps station WSYM in Lansing, Michigan.