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142-Year-Old MSU Experiment Continues On With New Generation Of Scientists

Lars Brudvig digs a hole in the dark of night. A green light illuminates the hole.
Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University
Plant biologist, Lars Brudvig digs to find a bottle buried on MSU's campus more than 140 years ago.

It sounds like a scene out of a movie.

Four specialists moving into an undisclosed location with only a map of landmarks to guide their way. They’re working under the cover of darkness, digging to find what they’re looking for in a race against the sunrise.

They make a mistake and dig in the wrong location. The morning birds are chirping as their deadline looms. But then, they find it.

Marjorie Weber didn’t discover buried treasure on Michigan State University’s campus.

She’s found a bottle of seeds buried more than 140 years ago by botanist and Michigan State University researcher, W.J. Beal.

Frank Telewski holds a small bottle filled with sand and seeds
Credit Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University
Beal buried 20 bottles filled with seeds and a sandy soil mix with instructions to originally unearth one every 5 years. Now, scientists dig one up ever 20 years.

Weber and three other plant biologists are part of a long line of scientists to continue Beal’s work periodically through the past 14 decades.

His research started in 1879. Director of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden at MSU, Frank Telewski explains he was trying to figure out how long seeds could stay in the soil and remain viable enough to grow.

"Professor Beal was becoming aware that the soil contains a bank of seeds that remain dormant until the growing conditions are favorable to allow them to germinate and restart plant life," he said.

He says Beal took a mix of more than 20 species of seeds and put them in 20 bottles along with sand and buried them.

Black and white photo of Beal in the classroom with students, botanical and scientific diagrams are hung up on the walls
Credit Michigan State University
W.J. Beal taught at what was then known as Michigan Agricultural College in the late 19th and early 20th century.

"His plan was to every five years excavate a bottle, shake out the sandy soil mix [and] see what would germinate."

Eventually, the study moved from every five years to every 10 years, to now, every two decades. Telewski was there the last time a bottle was unearthed in 2000. His colleague, Jan Zeevart, asked him to get involved.

"He tagged me and said, 'Frank, you're young. Would you be excited and willing to take on this next phase of the study?' I was honored. How do you say no to that?"

Around the same time, Marjorie Weber along with plant biologists Lars Brudvig and David Lowry were in college hearing about the experiment for the first time.

"I actually came and interviewed at Michigan State for graduate school in 2004," Lowry said. "And I remember walking around campus wondering where the bottles were buried but never thinking that I would actually be involved in this experiment."

Lowry says it’s only now that he’s involved and others are finding out about the study that he’s realized how big this is.

"I had known about this experiment for 20 years, and you start to forget the wonder of it. But then, when you hear the reaction of people hearing about the experiment for the first time, you remember how fantastic it actually is."

For Weber, being a member of the team has an added significance. She is the first woman to ever be involved.

"I think that scientists who buried the plants 140 years ago, I doubt very much that they would have imagined somebody like me when they thought about who was going to be in charge of this project down the line," she said. "And so, I find that very poignant and very moving."

I really like to think about who's gonna dig up the final jars in 2100.

Weber describes the science community as sometimes feeling like a "secret club" that not everyone is able to access, but she's looking forward to making that club more open to all.

"One really cool thing about this project is that it extends into the past, but it also extends into the future. And so I really like to think about who's gonna dig up the final jars in 2100?" she said. "What will the scientific community look like then? And how can our generation do a better job to make science more inclusive?"

A word the plant biologists use to describe their involvement in the study is as stewards. They weren’t the ones to start the project and they won’t be the ones to finish it when the final bottle is opened in 2100.

"It's very hard to figure out how long seeds can last in the soil," Lowry said. "And the only way to do it is an experiment like this. And since the seeds can last in the soil longer than a human lifetime, you actually have to do an experiment that's longer than a human lifetime to answer that question."

Beal’s research continues to be relevant today. Telewski says he got a call last year from a farmer who had heard about the study. The farmer had dug up a pond. After spreading its soil out, plants that would typically grow on a prairie started popping up. It was a real world example of what this study is trying to understand.

"Here's this person that's observing prairie plants. Well, his farm field, 150 years ago, was a prairie fragment. And so, all those plants that had dropped their seeds into that soil were just waiting there for the right conditions to germinate," Telewki said.

Frank Telewski inspects the sandy soil mix of seeds in a tray in a growth chamber. It looks almost like an industrial refrigerator
Credit Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University
The seeds are put in a growth chamber to be monitored throughout the experiment.

The seeds from this year’s bottle are sitting in a growth chamber right now, and the team has already seen a few of them sprout.

After that, they’ll conduct new experiments with some of the seeds using technology not available the last time a bottle was unearthed, much less when Beal first buried them.

It won’t be until 2040 that another group of plant biologists sneaks off into the night to unearth history again. 

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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