At 4 a.m. on a cold and snowy April day, four Michigan State University plant scientists met at an undisclosed area on campus. Armed with a shovel, headlamps, a tape measure and a well-worn map, the scientists were out to find “X marks the spot,” according to Frank Telewski, professor, plant biologist and team leader.
Under cloak of darkness and away from curious eyes, the scientists quietly went about their mission: to continue the work started by renowned MSU botanist William J. Beal 142 years ago that is now one of the world’s longest plant biology experiments.
Tiny time capsules
True to MSU’s land-grant mission, Beal wanted to help farmers increase crop production by eliminating weeds from their farms. In 1879, the only way to do this was with a hoe and a lot of hard work, so Beal was determined to find out how long the seeds of these undesirable plants could remain viable in soil to help the farmers.
He filled 20 3x7-inch, narrow-necked bottles with sand and 50 seeds from 23 weed species. Beal buried the bottles with their mouths slanting downward so water wouldn’t collect, replicating as best he could the natural seed and soil conditions. And so began the Beal Seed Experiment.
“Beal’s work is an example of MSU’s impact as one of the first institutions to study agriculture and explore some of basic science’s most enduring questions,” Telewski says.
In 1910, Beal retired at age 77 and left the then-31-year-old experiment to Professor of Botany H.T. Darlington.
Beal originally unearthed a bottle every five years to test the seeds. However, in 1920, it was decided to change the interval to 10 years to prolong the study. Then, in 1980 the interval was extended to 20 years. With four bottles still buried, the experiment will continue another 80 years until 2100.
Beal had a curious mind and wanted to understand the very nature of things — some questions only time can answer — and that’s a legacy myself and my successors have to protect and carry on.”
— Frank Telewski
A total of seven Spartans have been custodians of the Beal Seed Experiment since it began in 1879. During the 2000 bottle retrieval, MSU Professor Jan Zeevaart was the lead scientist and was joined by his younger associate, Telewski.
“I first heard about the Beal Seed Experiment back in the ‘80s as a graduate student working on my Ph.D. in plant physiology, but I never imagined being involved with it,” Telewski says.
“I studied Beal and read all his papers on the experiment and from that I learned he was a true Spartan — curious and wanting to understand the very nature of things.”
For the past several decades, just a small group of Spartan scientists have known where the bottles are buried. This is done to ensure the bottles are never dug up by the curious. But back in 2016, after a colleague passed away, Telewski realized he was the only person who possessed the secret map and knew where the bottles were buried.
“I knew it was important to plan for the succession of this experiment,” Telewski says. “Beal had a curious mind and wanted to understand the very nature of things — some questions only time can answer — and that’s a legacy myself and my successors have to protect and carry on."
That’s when Telewski recruited David Lowry, associate professor of plant biology who had expressed interest in joining the custodians of the seeds. Lowry first heard about the now-famous experiment when he was an undergraduate student in California.
“I was blown away by the length and time at which it was occurring,” Lowry says. “I never imagined I’d be involved as well.”
When Lowry agreed to be part of the team, Telewski entrusted him with a copy of the map and said, “You know, in case something happens to me.”
A few months later, Telewski suffered a stroke.
“Fortunately, Frank mostly recovered from the stroke,” Lowry says. “But there was a moment where I thought, ‘Wow, I’m really glad that that handoff had occurred.’ It just showed me how delicate it is to hand these things off while keeping them secret.”
Soon after that, Telewski invited Marjorie Weber, assistant professor, and Lars Brudvig, associate professor, to join the effort and add to the scientific expertise of the team.
Telewski selected Lowry because he’s trained as an environmental plant physiologist, like himself, and also as an evolutionary biologist. Weber, the first woman to be part of the team, is an expert in ecology and evolution.
Brudvig is a restoration ecologist who researches how seed banks — seeds buried deep in the soil — can help restore damaged land. And Margaret Fleming, a postdoctoral researcher in Weber’s lab, is a molecular biologist, who examines seeds to see if they are still “somewhat alive.”
“Seeds don’t live and die like other organisms,” Weber says. “They are more like zombies that can hang out in the soil for incredibly long periods of time, seemingly dead and then suddenly germinate. We’re trying to understand why and for how long this phenomenon happens.”
Bringing in a new generation of scientists with diverse backgrounds is an opportunity to rethink the experiment’s possibilities, Telewski says.
“When Beal buried these seeds, we didn’t even know what DNA was,” he says. “The technology has changed so much and this team has the expertise to better understand seed dormancy and seed viability without compromising the experiment’s original intent.”
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.”
Time to plant, but will they grow?
Bottle and seeds safely in hand, the researchers went to the “growth chamber,” a climate-controlled lab on campus. They spread out the sandy soil and seeds in a black tray filled with sterile potting soil. Lowry was left to tend and water the old seeds. And wait.
Telewski inspects the tray
Once planted, seeds have sprouted after every bottle excavation over the past 142 years, so hopes were high, but without guarantee. The most reliable seed has been Verbascum blattaria, a weed commonly called moth mullein. To Lowry, an important question is why Verbascum persists while others haven’t.
Moth Mullein is the first to sprout
“What intrigues me about this experiment is why multiple species of buried seeds respond so differently,” he says. “From a tree of life perspective, I want to understand why some seeds evolved this way and predict which seeds should last a long time in seed banks based upon their evolutionary past.”
Seeds, like people, can be particular. Some need more than just soil, water and sun to sprout. Some need a bit more inducement. So, after applying the typical germination method — soil, light and water — the team will try other methods to induce the seeds to sprout, namely cold and smoke.
“We’re going to put the seeds through a cold treatment to simulate a second winter,” Telewski says. “In 2000, the cold treatment spurred a single seed of Malva rotundifolia to germinate for the first time in decades, so we’re hoping it will make a reappearance.”
Fireweed in bloom
The team will also use smoke to possibly prod the seeds. Across areas prone to fire, several plant species, like fireweed, one of the Beal seeds used, may have evolved needing smoke to germinate.
“It remains unclear if this is the case for fireweed,” Brudvig says, “But it’s notable that fireweed has never sprouted since the experiment began.
Seven days after the seeds had been planted, Lowry checked on them around noon but found nothing. When he checked again two hours later, as if on cue, a tiny two-leafed sprout of Verbascum peeked up from the soil as if to say, “Hello. It’s been a while.”
Soon after, the eldest sprout was joined by several younger siblings. It was so good to see “the kids,” Telewski says.
“I was so relieved, pleased and excited,” he says. “I wanted Marjorie, Lars, David and Margaret to experience the wonder and awe I did 21 years ago.”
Lessons learned nearly a century and a half later
The team agrees that the experiment has provided valuable information to plant ecologists who study ways to regenerate land disturbed by fire, flood, wind or other environmental events. Vegetation can recover from the existing seeds in the soil — they don’t have to be blown or carried in as once thought, Brudvig says.
“This is important for ecosystem restoration because it means that seeds in the seed bank may bring ecological surprises for good or bad,” he says. “The alive seeds may be native species that we want to grow or invasive species that disrupt restoration efforts.”
The team also agrees that this long-term experiment is a lesson in scientific foresight by Beal and dedicated stewardship by all team members who have contributed since 1879.
“Thanks to Beal, we’ve learned that plant species differ dramatically in how long their seeds remain viable in the soil, from years to a century or more, which is remarkable,” Brudvig says.
“But we still don’t know the answer to Beal’s original question: How long can seeds remain viable? Maybe we’ll know this answer in another 20 years.”
Kim Ward, Kevin Epling, Deon Foster, Derrick Turner, Greg Kohuth and Jacob Templin-Fulton
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