142-year-old experiment on seed germination lives on at MSU | Michigan Radio
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142-year-old experiment on seed germination lives on at MSU

May 7, 2021

Frank Telewski, Marjorie Weber, Margaret Fleming, David Lowry, and Lars Brudvig dig up the Beal Bottle for a 142-year-old seed germination research project at Michigan State University.
Credit Courtesy of Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University

Forty-two years after the state of Michigan became the state of Michigan, a botanist named William Beal buried 20 open bottles of seeds to see how long they could remain viable.

A few weeks ago Frank Telewski, a professor of plant biology at Michigan State University, along with a few colleagues, continued the decades-long experiment by digging up one of those bottles on the MSU campus.

This excursion happened early in the morning before most of the world was awake. It’s sort of a secret; you don’t want someone stumbling upon or messing with your 142-year-long experiment. The 50 seeds, in their upside-down, uncapped containers have been “asleep” in sandy soil the whole time. This is the second bottle Telewski has dug up; it was decided in 1980 that the bottles would be unearthed every 20 years.

“The problem with extending it beyond 20 years is that we don’t want it to go intergenerational and have maybe somebody forget about the bottles,” Telewksi said. “So, it’s a human memory issue as well as a functional issue for the seeds. So that’s a question that’s obviously going to go beyond me because we’ve excavated the bottles just a couple of weeks ago.” 

Botanist William Beal as a young man.
Credit Michigan State University / University of Michigan Archives

They go early in the morning, as it’s been hypothesized that light can trigger germination. William Beal commenced this controlled experiment in 1879 as a botany professor at Michigan State University. His parents were farmers, and his work has helped farmers and botanists far beyond his lifetime.

“At this point in time, with agriculture and other aspects of growing plants, he was becoming more increasingly aware of what we refer to today as the seed bank,” Telewski said. “That is the seeds that are stored in the soil that will remain dormant for an unknown period of time. And when you disturb that soil or bring that soil up through cultivation, or if there’s a disturbance in the habitat, a fire, or a flood, these could help expose the buried seeds and those seeds would begin to germinate and repopulate the area.

Telewski runs the Beal experiment and is currently curator for the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden. He became a part of a line of Beal’s successors after taking over the project over a decade ago.

The team that works on this project is growing, a conscious effort on Telewski’s part to expand the scope of understanding they can gather from the data. They’ve learned that the smaller seeds tend to retain viability for a longer period. 

W.J. Beal Botanical Garden curator Frank Telewski spreads seeds from the Beal Bottle in a tray in a growth lab.
Credit Courtesy of Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University

“These seeds are very slow at metabolizing. You think about a seed, the seed contains everything that that embryo plant inside there needs to survive during dormancy and then also enough to ... give it the energy to germinate and put up those first cotyledons above ground in order it to fix sunlight and photosynthesize,” Telewski said. “Each species has its own timer clock if you will, internally in terms of how long it will remain viable. And I’m not that familiar with current research on that area to appropriately answer the question of what specifics do we know at the time. Hence my reason for diversifying the team.”

Telewski is working to expand the scope of the project in a sort of Beal 2.0 experiment. There are only four bottles left from the original experiment, so as it stands, it can only last until 2100. Telewski says he feels honored to have been a part of keeping it going this far.

“He was one of those people who we would call a visionary,” Telewski said about Professor Beal. “He actually planted trees with the intent of having his tree studies go well beyond his lifetime.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.