Digging up 142-year-old seeds in the latest installment in the world's oldest experiment
These botanical time capsules were buried in 1879 to see how long seeds could survive
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 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.
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