Locating Beal’s buried treasure
All the excavations take place in the dark of night by the core Beal team only. No one except the team knows the locations of the remaining bottles of seeds or the exact date of the excavation. This is done for two reasons: to make sure the seeds aren’t prematurely exposed to sunlight before safely planted. Second, secrecy ensures the experiment can continue and the seed bottles won’t be excavated before their time.
“When I told my daughter about the dig, she turned over our basement convinced that she could find the ‘treasure map’ down there, in spite of me telling her that it’s not in our house,” Brudvig says. “I asked her why she wanted to find the map and she said, ‘So I can dig up the rest of the bottles.’ And this is why keeping the dig location secret is important!”
But this year, the team entrusted its secret to fellow Spartan and evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski.
“I told Frank (Telewski) that I’ve long been interested in the history of biology, especially people and ideas related to evolution,” says Lenski, Hannah Distinguished Professor of Microbial Ecology. “Beal and Charles Darwin corresponded about their work, and I told Frank that I’d love to go on the next dig for a Beal bottle. He kindly took me up on that.
“Plus, for me, it’s interesting that MSU has two of the longest ongoing experiments in biology,” he says. “In my lab, I’ve been running an experiment with E. coli bacteria for over 30 years. That’s a lot shorter in absolute time than Beal’s experiment, but it’s paid off in terms of what we’ve learned about how bacteria evolve. I hope my experiment can keep going long after I’m gone, just like Beal’s experiment.”
And so the team, plus Lenski, gathered on that cold, dark and snowy April morning to continue Beal’s work.
“It felt like we were looking for buried treasure,” Weber says.
And like pirates of the past, the team’s only guide was an old map.
As leader, Telewski first started digging. But nearly an hour later, with morale low and daylight threatening to blow their cover, the team had not yet found the bottle.
“We finally realized we were digging in the wrong spot and had to restart about two feet west,” Telewski says. “It was very frustrating but it’s not like we could use GPS!”
After digging in the new spot, Weber then got down in the dirt, stuck her head in the hole and gingerly started searching for the bottle with her hands.
“The last thing we wanted to do was break the bottle with the shovel,” Weber says. “So, it was my turn to dig by hand.
“When I first felt something, I got really excited, then realized it was a tree root. I got excited again, then realized it was a rock. Everyone groaned.”
Then, finally, Weber found the bottled treasure, and the team cheered.
“It was amazing, like safely delivering a baby,” Weber says. “I was overwhelmed to hold the bottle last touched by Dr. Beal more than 140 years ago. Being part of a team of scientists that span generations is a very special feeling.”