© 2022 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

142-Year-Old Seeds Sprout As Part Of Ongoing MSU Science Experiment

 Frank Telewski, Curator, W. J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum, spread seeds, from the Beal Bottle, in a tray in the growth lab.
Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University
/
Frank Telewski led the Beal research team in 2021.

Last month, a team of plant biologists dug up a bottle of seeds on Michigan State University's campus buried by botanist, W.J. Beal, in 1879 and planted what was inside to see what would grow all these years later.

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

Frank Telewski is the Director of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden at MSU. WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with him to explain what happened next.

Interview Highlights

On What Seeds Have Sprouted So Far

The majority of the seeds that germinated look identical, and they are very likely Verbascum. They're very likely Verbascum Blattaria as that's what's germinated in the last two trials [in] 1980 and 2000.There's one seedling that is definitely different. [The] little cotyledons are triangular-shaped and have little tiny hairs on it. I think that might be Malva Rotundifolia, but I can't say with certainty until we see some secondary leaves come out, some more mature leaves for positive identification.

On The New Experiment They're Designing To Go Along With Beal's

Who knows in 20, 40, 80 years from now, what technology is going to be available to apply to the seeds that we would have buried for, you know, for future generations? So, we really want to try to be forward thinking about this in our design, plan it out very carefully and then implement it with high hopes for the future and then let it pass on to the many generations like Professor Beal did back in 1879.

On How It Feels To Be Done With The Study After Being A Part Of It For 20 Years

It's really neat to have been part of this study for the past two decades. It's been amazing to be able to partake in what Beal set up and share that. It's been amazing to pass this on to next generation to see the enthusiasm and the excitement that my younger colleagues have, and you know, for the study and for carrying forward that sense of legacy. It's all very fulfilling.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

Last month, I brought you a story about the latest update to a 142-year-old experiment on Michigan State University’s campus.

A team of plant biologists dug up a bottle of seeds buried by botanist, W.J. Beal in 1879 and planted what was inside to see what would grow all these years later.

Frank Telewski is the Director of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden at MSU. He joins me to tell me what happened next. Thank you for being here. 

Frank Telewski: Thank you for having me, Sophia.

Saliby: So, can you tell me what happened after you planted the seeds?

Telewski: Well, it's been about a month, and as of Wednesday, we have 12 germinated seeds.

Saliby: What were the seeds, and was this a surprising result to see things actually grow?

tray of sandy soil, about 7 tiny seedlings have sprouted
Credit Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University
/
The plant biologists believe many of the seeds that have sprouted are Verbascum blattaria.

  Telewski: It's a very satisfying result, I wouldn't say it's, you know, expected. You just don't know what to expect in this particular case. But the majority of the seeds that germinated look identical, and they are very likely Verbascum. They're very likely Verbascum Blattaria as that's what's germinated in the last two trials [in] 1980 and 2000.

There's one seedling that is definitely different. [The] little cotyledons are triangular-shaped and have little tiny hairs on it. I think that might be Malva Rotundifolia, but I can't say with certainty until we see some secondary leaves come out, some more mature leaves for positive identification.

And we had a seedling germinate. It's very tiny. There's still some dirt on the cotyledons, so I didn't want to touch the plant or try to clean it off with the risk of possibly breaking it. It might be another Malva. It might be something different. The cotyledons look a little bit more elongated as opposed to being kind of "ovaly" round. But again, time will tell. We can't really make any positive identifications until we have some secondary foliage.

Saliby: You told me your team would be doing some additional tests on the seeds now that the initial growth test is mostly done. What will those look like?

Telewski: We want to let this go for another several weeks before we put the sandy soil mix containing the seeds into a refrigerator. We're going to chill them for six weeks, and then take them out and see if that stimulates anything to germinate. And we'll wait approximately about another month or so to see what might come up. And then we want to try treating the soil seed mix with some smoke to simulate fire.

Once we're done with those growth chamber tests, then one of our team members will be taking a look at this leftover mix [to] see if she can isolate some seeds from there and see if she can try to extract some some nucleic acids, RNA and DNA from those to try to determine if those seeds have still some functional metabolism, but they just weren't strong enough or something broke in that metabolism that did not allow them to successfully germinate like the seedlings that we're seeing today.

Saliby: There are plans to design a new experiment to go along with Beal's original work. Can you tell me more about that?

Telewski: We're planning on establishing a new long-term seed experiment building upon the knowledge we've gained from Beal's work and also upon our current state-of-the-art knowledge and technologies. We're very excited about that. We're in the process of trying to determine what seeds we should put in there. We're looking at some invasive species [or] non-native invasive species, and we're also looking at possibly some native species, particularly some prairie species, I would tend to think. But we haven't come up with a finalized list yet.

Hand holding a small bottle filled with sand and seeds in front of a dirt hole.
Credit Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University
/
Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University
The Beal research team gathered in the middle of the night last month to unearth a bottle buried by W.J. Beal in 1879.

We're looking at having at least two bottles per period so that we could have one bottle containing seeds that we would do the traditional Beal-type seed germination experiment and study with, but then we'd have the other bottle that would be available to have destructive sampling. And so, we could actually look at the nucleic acids. We could actually look at some of the metabolism in those seeds and get a better idea of the fine-tuning of what might be going on in those seeds as they age.

Who knows in 20, 40, 80 years from now, what technology is going to be available to apply to the seeds that we would have buried for, you know, for future generations? So, we really want to try to be forward thinking about this in our design, plan it out very carefully and then implement it with high hopes for the future and then let it pass on to the many generations like Professor Beal did back in 1879.

Saliby: You've told me that 20 years from now, when the next bottle is unearthed, you plan to definitely be retired. How does it feel to be kind of done with this project that has been part of your life for more than 20 years?

Telewski: It's bittersweet, I think, I mean, really, we all eventually get to the end of our careers. None of us are immortal. I'm hoping that I will be alive in 20 years. I will be 85 if I am, and hopefully, I'll be cognitive and functional, so I could be there. I will not be part of the team, certainly. That'll be for my colleagues that I've just passed it on to but it'd be nice to just say hi. And it'd be so exciting to see seeds germinate again, for the 160th [year] study. That would just be really, really, really cool to see that.

It's really neat to have been part of this study for the past two decades. It's been amazing to be able to partake in what Beal setup and share that. It's been amazing to pass this on to next generation to see the enthusiasm and the excitement that my younger colleagues have, and you know, for the study and for carrying forward that sense of legacy. It's all very fulfilling.

Saliby: Frank Telewski is the director of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden at MSU. Thank you for joining me.

Telewski: Thank you very much.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
Related Content
News from WKAR will never be behind a paywall. Ever. We need your help to keep our coverage free for everyone. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. You can support our journalism for as little as $5. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.