© 2021 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
WKAR News

MSU research team working with 142-year-old seeds still seeing growth

several rows of green leafy plants in red pots in a greenhouse. The plants are several varieties of verbascum.
Courtesy
/
Margaret Fleming
20 of the 142-year-old seeds have sprouted after various tests.

In April, a team of Michigan State University plant biologists dug up a bottle of seeds buried by botanist W.J. Beal in 1879.

The seeds have been subjected to various tests to see if they would grow nearly a century and a half later.

Margaret Fleming is a plant biology researcher at MSU. She was also a part of the Beal seed experiment team.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with Fleming about the latest results.

Interview Highlights

On the most recent tests the researchers are applying to the seeds

We took the tray, again, we transplanted all the seedlings, and we took the tray and sprayed it with plant hormone that induces germination called gibberellic acid and liquid smoke treatments. So, we haven't seen any results from that yet, but we are still very hopeful that we might get more seedlings to germinate after this.

On what the results so far mean for Beal's original research question

Most of the seeds that germinated did so within about a week of being exposed to light. And this means these seeds are really, really happy. They don't feel like they're dead or have been in storage at all. That's the normal amount of time it takes for a verbascum seed to germinate. And that was really unexpected. The other thing in the context of what Beal was originally asking was how long would a farmer have to wait before his field was clear of weeds. It's a long, long time.

On new experiments the team is planning to continue the project

What I would love also is to get people from around the world involved in this experiment because so far we only know how the environment and time affects seeds in this one little spot on Michigan State University's campus. And of course, there are different places with different temperatures and different soil moisture and different native seeds. So, I would love to have a common protocol that people around the world could follow to bury their own seeds and monitor them at whatever time intervals they chose and then send their data to a repository housed at Michigan State University.

Interview Transcript

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

Today, we bring you another update on an experiment that has been running on Michigan State University’s campus for more than 140 years.

In April of this year, a team of plant biologists dug up a bottle of seeds buried by botanist W.J. Beal in 1879.

The seeds were then subjected to various tests to see if they would grow nearly a century and a half later.

Margaret Fleming is a plant biology researcher at MSU. She was also a part of the Beal seed experiment team. Thank you for being here.

Margaret Fleming: Thank you for having me.

Saliby: Can you walk us through how these seeds were tested once they were unearthed earlier this year?

closeup of a person wearing gloves and holding a small dirty bottle. In the background is a hole where the bottle was dug out of.
Derrick L. Turner
A team of MSU plant biologists unearthed one of the last bottles, buried by W.J. Beal in 1879, earlier this year.

Fleming: So, we've been following a protocol that was last followed 20 years ago with the previous bottle. And basically what happens to the seeds is we took them out of the ground, the bottle is completely full [and] packed to the brim with sand and seeds all mixed together, and we scraped that all out of the bottle into a tray that had soil in it. And then we took that and put it in a growth chamber, and then we waited.

And 14 seeds germinated during that time, and after a while nothing else was coming up. So, we took the tray and transplanted anything that had germinated, and then the tray with anything else left was put into a refrigerator for eight weeks.

And this was to help any seeds that have a cold requirement before they're able to germinate. It was like a fake second winter. Once that came out of the refrigerator, six more seeds germinated, so we have 20 seedlings total so far.

So, we took the tray, again, we transplanted all the seedlings, and we took the tray and sprayed it with plant hormone that induces germination called gibberellic acid and liquid smoke treatments. So, we haven't seen any results from that yet, but we are still very hopeful that we might get more seedlings to germinate after this.

Saliby: Can you explain what the results so far have meant in the bigger context of Beal's original experiment?

Most of the seeds that germinated did so within about a week of being exposed to light. And this means these seeds are really, really happy.

Fleming: I think these results are really exciting because, first of all, most of the seeds that germinated did so within about a week of being exposed to light. And this means these seeds are really, really happy.

They don't feel like they're dead or have been in storage at all. That's the normal amount of time it takes for a verbascum seed to germinate. And that was really unexpected.

The other thing in the context of what Beal was originally asking was how long would a farmer have to wait before his field was clear of weeds. It's a long, long time.

Saliby: So, I've heard that the research team might incorporate some new ways to test the seeds with technology that wasn't even around when the last bottle was unearthed in 2000. Can you share some of those details on new tests?

Fleming: There are a bunch of new tests that we would love to apply, and these are things that I worked on in my previous research with the USDA-ARS (United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service) in Fort Collins, Colorado, where the National Laboratory for Germplasm Preservation is, actually, I think it's the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation.

In that lab, we were looking at whether we could find any signals in the molecules stored in the cells that would tell us about the seed health, the seed longevity [and] how damaged the seeds had been.

And we saw that there are clear signals in the RNA, that is what is used by the cell to make proteins. So, if the RNA is all messed up, then the proteins can't be made. And if the proteins can't be made, then everything falls apart. I would like to use this technology to look at the RNA. It's called transcriptomics. We can also look at the proteins and see how intact they are.

There might be signals of evolutionary change in those seeds.

And finally, we can sequence the genomes of these seeds and look at how intact or damaged they are and look at any changes between the seeds that were planted 140 years ago versus modern seeds from the same species collected today. So, there might be signals of evolutionary change in those seeds.

Saliby: And briefly, does the team plan on creating a new experiment in the spirit of Beal's research?

Fleming: Absolutely. We are planning for a new experiment at the moment. We would like to have this experiment be more adjustable so that if new techniques come up, it will be easier to apply them. The current situation where the seeds of all these different species are mixed up in the sand makes it really hard to pull out seeds that you're interested in testing.

closeup image of a tray filled with dirt with sand on top. There are several small green seedlings poking out.
Derrick L. Turner
Most of the seeds that germinated did so within a month of them being unearthed earlier this year.

What I would love also is to get people from around the world involved in this experiment because so far we only know how the environment and time affects seeds in this one little spot on Michigan State University's campus. And of course, there are different places with different temperatures and different soil moisture and different native seeds.

So, I would love to have a common protocol that people around the world could follow to bury their own seeds and monitor them at whatever time intervals they chose and then send their data to a repository housed at Michigan State University.

Saliby: Margaret Fleming is a plant biology researcher at MSU and is part of the team carrying out the ongoing Beal seed experiment. Thank you for joining me.

Fleming: Thank you so much for having me.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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.