The world’s longest-running science experiment is buried in a secret location somewhere on the Michigan State University campus. In the fall of 1879, Dr. William James Beal buried 20 bottles filled with moist sand and seeds. Each bottle was left uncorked and placed with the mouth pointing down, so that no water would accumulate in the vessels.   

In the spring of 2000, under cover of night, Dr. Frank Telewski and his colleague Dr. Jan Zeevaart went to the secret location and dug up the sixth to last seed bottle. Completing the latest act in what has become the world’s longest, continually monitored scientific event. In the beginning the seeds were to be dug up every five years.  This was quickly changed to every 20 years.   

The seeds were carefully selected, about 50 seeds each, and 23 different varieties of seeds are in each bottle.  The quest is to find out how long a seed can lie dormant in the soil, before it loses its ability to germinate. I, for one, have always been amazed at how blackberry vines take over a clear-cut piece of property, no matter how long the forest has been left alone. This would suggest to me that those seeds can lie dormant for a very long time and still spring to life with the first good dose of rain and sun. 

They may be tiny, but seeds are remarkably tough. Without water or sun, they can lie dormant for thousands of years. Israeli researchers grew a healthy date palm out of a 2,000-year-old seed (that tree, nicknamed Methuselah, recently became a dad).   

As the seeds are unearthed, they are planted into fertile soil to see what comes up. The toughest variety has been Verbascum Blattaria, or moth mullein, as nearly half of these seeds have consistently germinated over the last 142 years. Second place goes to Malva rotundifolia, a round-leafed mallow nicknamed “cheeses” after its wedge like seeds. Only one of those sprouted in 2,000. 

As for the other 21 species, none showed even a tendril. This might have pleased the farmers who inspired the study, but I have to admit, I find it a little sad. Many species of plants that are locally extinct may actually still be viable in the soils of those environments. Telewski explains, stir them from their slumber, and these Lazarus plants could start a whole population. The 2020 dig was just completed in 2021, and I haven’t heard the results of this new dig. COVID-19 even delayed the longest-running science experiment in history.   

 

God bless you all, RHM