They secretly resume one of the longest experiments in history

 Researchers unearthed seeds that were hidden 142 years ago under a university campus

 

The experiment tries to find out how long the seeds can remain inactive in the soil without losing their ability to germinate The New York Times

Dr. Marjorie Weber and her colleagues at Michigan State University are the ultimate custodians of "Beal's seed viability," a centuries-old experiment that attempts to determine how long seeds can remain dormant in the soil without losing their ability to germinate.

 

Every 20 years, the caretakers of the experiment move to a secret location on this university campus and dig up a bottle, then spread its seeds on a dirt tray and see which ones grow.

It is one of the longest-running experiments in the world , carried out from generation to generation for the last 142 years, according to a report published by The New York Times . Scientists expect it to last at least another 80 years, until after the year 2100.

Marjorie Weber, assistant professor of plant biology at Michigan State University
Marjorie Weber, assistant professor of plant biology at Michigan State UniversityThe New York Times

What began as a simple attempt to measure the persistence of seeds has turned into a more interesting experiment as the decades pass. With improved technology and increased knowledge, investigators can now do much more than count the successful shoots from each bottle, reported reporter Cara Giaimo .

With these advancements, researchers can even look inside the seeds, begin to determine what explains longevity, and even, in some cases, make once-extinct species reappear . The results of the work could help restore damaged ecosystems and even store crop seeds for the long term.

One bottle and three centuries of validity

The bottle the team of scientists just unearthed contains more than 1,000 seeds: 50 of each of 21 different species , from black mustard to white clover to red-root amaranth.

 

In 1879, William James Beal , a Michigan state botanist, filled 20 such bottles and buried them in a row somewhere on campus. He thought that he, and later his successors, could unearth one every five years and plant the preserved seeds inside.

This plant reserve is known as a seed bank . By experimentally recreating it, Dr. Beal hoped to understand how long plants might last in the soil and what makes them grow. His experiment is believed to have started when he was trying to help local farmers.

William James Beal, the botanist who buried the seeds in 1879
William James Beal, the botanist who buried the seeds in 1879The New York Times

The custodians of this experiment account that during the first digs, several species flourished, and the seeds grew easily after 10, 15 or 20 years of being enclosed in the bottle . But, as the decades passed, most of the seeds failed to germinate.

There was a seed that, after 142 years of storage, continues to germinate. It's called Verbascum blattaria and it's an herb with yellow flowers and spreading leaves. Almost half of the Verbascum seeds in the 2000 bottle bloomed , even though they had been underground for more than a century.

Seed banks

Seed banks are "big unknowns" in restoration ecology, as experts try to promote native species while fending off invaders, said Lars Brudvig , assistant professor at Michigan State and member of the experiment team. of Beal's seeds. In some cases, the seeds of long-lost or endangered plants may even be hidden in the ground.

 

Other researchers working on longevity and germination issues could save seeds in climate-controlled settings or study very old ones they find. But Beal's seed experiment mixes natural conditions with carefully recorded data, says Carol Baskin , a professor at the University of Kentucky, who has used its results in her work. "I think Professor Beal has the best experiment here," Baskin said. "I wish I had buried more bottles."

The bottle the team unearthed from the college campus contains more than 1,000 seeds: 50 of each of 21 different species, from black mustard to white clover to red-root amaranth.
The bottle the team unearthed from the college campus contains more than 1,000 seeds: 50 of each of 21 different species, from black mustard to white clover to red-root amaranth.The New York Times

Experimenting since 1879

When Dr. Beal first buried the seed bottles, he planned to unearth one every five years and for the experiment to last a century.

But as time passed, those responsible extended the time between excavations to 10 years, and then to 20. Two excavations have been delayed a bit. The one from 1919 was moved to the spring of 1920. In this case, Dr. Frank Telewski , professor of plant biology and seventh person in charge of the experiment, suspects that it may be related to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and the one from 2020 moved to this year, due to campus closures related to the coronavirus pandemic.

 

To avoid losing the thread over the decades, a kind of seed keeper ministry has developed in the state of Michigan, in which each generation of botanists passes the torch to their younger colleagues.

Over the years, the excavations have been conducted at night, not to give the work a shroud of mystery, but to protect the other bottled seeds from sunlight, which could cause them to germinate prematurely, Telewski said. It is for this reason that the team uses lanterns with green lights during the burial ceremony.


 

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