Quirks & Quarks

Digging up 142-year-old seeds in the latest installment in the world's oldest experiment

Every 20 years, a small group of botanists go on a hunt to excavate a jar of seeds to continue a study looking into how long they can remain viable

These botanical time capsules were buried in 1879 to see how long seeds could survive

Frank Telewski, Curator, W. J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum, search for the Beal Bottle, to continue the seed germination study, first done over 140 years ago. (Derrick L. Turner / Michigan State University / © 2019 MSU Board of Trustees)

One night in April a small group of scientists met at three in the morning with shovels and a treasure map to a top secret location.  They were on a hunt for a scientific experiment that has spanned many generations. 

Prof. Frank Telewski, the director of the director of the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden and professor of plant biology at Michigan State University, is the current guardian of what is thought to be the oldest scientific experiment in the world. 

He told Quirks & Quarks' host Bob McDonald how this year's dig was the second time he took part in an excavation since he took guardianship the experiment over in the late 1990s.

The scientists dug up the bottle of seeds under the cloak of darkness with only green light, which plants don't respond to. (Derrick L. Turner / Michigan State University / © 2019 MSU Board of Trustees)

The experiment began in 1879 when botanist  W.J. Beal buried 20 jars containing 21 different seed species to investigate how long seeds can remain viable. 

He devised this experiment to extend far into the future, beyond his death.

Beal likely couldn't imagine the kind of studies scientists can do today on his seeds, since he lived in a time when the theory of evolution was new, and there was no conception of things like DNA and molecular biology. With advances in understanding and techniques, the questions scientists can ask today have significantly expanded. 

Frank Telewski, Curator, W. J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum, spread seeds from the Beal Bottle, in a tray in the growth lab at Michigan State University. (Derrick L. Turner / Michigan State University / © 2019 MSU Board of Trustees)

Prof. Telewski says can now compare these older seeds to modern day versions in order to study how their genome may have evolved. 

The researchers will also be able to look into why 18 of the 20 seed species haven't germinated during the past couple of excavations, and investigate if they've retained any metabolic activity, even if they lacked the ability to germinate. 

He says since he'll be 85 years old when it's time to dig up the next bottle, he's tapped four other scientists to take it over.  The new team includes an evolutionary biologist, a population restoration ecologist, a physiological plant ecologist and a seed scientist.

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting

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