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Experiment Started in 1879 Isn't Done Yet

Every 20 years, a bottle is secretly removed from the ground at Michigan State University
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 25, 2021 2:32 PM CDT

(Newser) – Three Michigan State University scientists have been let in on a secret that has persisted since 1879: the location of buried glass bottles that make up an experiment that has gone on for more than a century—and will likely continue until the dawn of a new century. NPR reports on the experiment started in the late 19th century by botanist William Beal, who had a question: How long do seeds stay viable underground? It likely originated from a real-world headache: If farmers regularly weeded their plots, how long would weeds keep popping up due to seeds already present in the dirt? To get at an answer, he buried 20 glass bottles that contained sand and 50 seeds from each of 21 different weed species, explains MSU plant biology professor Frank Telewski, the current caretaker of the experiment.

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Beal returned to the location known only to him every five years, dug up a bottle, and determined whether the seeds inside would still germinate. He handed off the experiment to a colleague in 1910, and over the years the intervals at which a bottle was unearthed were extended to every 10 and then every 20 years. The New York Times reports that only one seed is still reliably germinating: Verbascum blattaria. About half those seeds in the bottle dug up in 2000 sprouted. This year, Telewski looped three younger colleagues in on the secret. Marjorie Weber was one of them, and marveled at finding the bottle. "The last person to touch it was professor Beal, 140 years ago, you know, this person who was writing letters to Darwin," she says. Once back in the lab, the seeds were scattered onto potting soil, and they're now just waiting. Four bottles remain buried, meaning the last will likely be put to the test in the year 2100. (Read more science experiment stories.)

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