Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Experiment started years ago by Dr. Beal continued today

February 16, 2016

More than 130 years ago, in the fall of 1879, William James Beal, former professor of botany when MSU was Michigan Agricultural College, started one of the longest-running experiments in the world, and it’s taking place under the feet of MSU students walking to class across campus.

The experiment’s focus was on how long the seeds of different species of weeds can lie dormant underground and still be able to grow when exposed to the proper conditions. 

This was a problem faced by farmers of the time, as the lack of the herbicides required them to constantly pull weeds out of the ground to plant their crops.

To begin the experiment, Beal filled 20 glass bottles, each about the size of a whiskey flask, with sand and 50 seeds from 21 different species of weeds. He then took these bottles to a secret location on campus and buried them, unsealed and pointed downwards at a slight angle. 

Since being buried, one bottle was dug up every five years by Beal to have the seeds inside tested to see if they would grow. This interval later grew to 10 years and is now at 20 years.

Since Beal first broke ground on the experiment, the person given the task of carrying on his mission has changed hands numerous times, and today the one at the helm is Frank Telewski, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and curator of the Beal Botanical Garden.

Telewski said he remembers thinking about the importance of Beal’s experiment when he first heard about it while attending graduate school in 1980.

“This was a big experiment and being a plant physiologist, you know, hearing about the Beal study and saying ‘oh, wow, that’s really neat, that's really cool,’ and you have no idea you’re going to be the next person to excavate a bottle 20 years later ” Telewski said. “It was an incredible honor ... to be here at the right time and right place with the expertise that I have to be able to be involved with it.”

Telewski described the bottles of seeds as a form of genetic time capsules, with plans of comparing the genetics of the next batch of seeds to the current generation the plants that are present in Michigan today.

"Over the course of 100 years there's going to be a certain level of natural selection, there's going to be a certain amount of mutation that's going to take place, and if we could quantify that it would be kind of interesting," Telewski said. "To actually see, you know, has mutation taken place, has there been any selective pressure on these plants, and if so how can we define those from the original population?"

He said the experiment is not only important to the university, but the scientific community in general. 

"We know now that seeds can be viable in the soil for a long time, so Professor Beal's original question has been answered," Telewski said. 

The next bottle will be unearthed in 2020, and with four remaining after that the experiment is planned continue until 2100.

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