A New Generation Of Scientists Takes On A 142-Year-Old Experiment Scientists in Michigan went out in the dead of night to dig up part of an unusual long-term experiment. It's a research study that started in 1879 and is handed from one generation to the next.

The Secret Mission To Unearth Part Of A 142-Year-Old Experiment

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/989333092/990281625" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A team of scientists has unearthed buried treasure. It's not gold or jewels. Rather, it's part of an experiment hidden more than a century ago by a botanist who worked at what's now Michigan State University. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on what he stashed away and why.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: It was 4 a.m., dark, cold and lightly snowing. The four scientists hoped no one would notice as they gathered together on the campus of Michigan State University.

LARS BRUDVIG: Do you know where we're headed?

FRANK TELEWSKI: Yep.

BRUDVIG: OK, good.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They brought flashlights, a shovel and an old map showing the secret location.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELS DIGGING)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They took turns digging.

TELEWSKI: How deep is that? That's about - what? - eight inches?

DAVID LOWRY: Sixteen inches.

MARJORIE WEBER: Do you want the tape measurer?

TELEWSKI: Yeah.

LOWRY: Let's dig here.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Professor Frank Telewski was the only one of them who'd done this before two decades ago. That's when he first took on the role of caretaker for a long-term experiment - a really long-term experiment, one that started in 1879. Telewski explains that way back then, a botanist named William Beal wanted to answer a question. How long can the seeds of weeds remain viable underground?

TELEWSKI: And what he did is he got 20 bottles, and those 20 bottles he filled up with a sandy seed mixture. And the sandy seed mixture contained 21 species of plants with 50 seeds per plant.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Telewski says the original idea was to dig up a bottle every five years and try to get its seeds to sprout. Beal did that until he retired in 1910. Then he handed his experiment off to another scientist, who handed it off to another and so on until Telewski got the honor. He and the other caretakers have kept this experiment going longer than Beal ever intended because they switched to digging up a bottle every 10 years, then every 20 years. As Telewski got ready for this latest excavation, he started thinking about the future.

TELEWSKI: I decided we needed to pass this on to the next generation, as I turned 65 last year.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he picked three young colleagues at Michigan State University to be the new caretakers - Marjorie Weber, David Lowry and Lars Brudvig. David Lowry says he first heard of this experiment two decades ago when he was a student in California.

LOWRY: I was blown away by the length and time in which it was occurring. I never imagined I'd be involved as well.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But there he was, digging in the dark. The team recorded their adventure. Lars Brudvig says this felt different than doing his own experiments.

BRUDVIG: Almost, like, more pressure or something than normal because I, like - you know, I'm part of this bigger process. It's bigger than me.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They all watched as Marjorie Weber stuck her head in the hole and started feeling around in the dirt.

WEBER: Oh.

TELEWSKI: I hope I'm right.

WEBER: I think I found it.

TELEWSKI: Woo (ph).

WEBER: Wait - maybe not.

(LAUGHTER)

LOWRY: Come on, Marjorie.

WEBER: Oh, it was a rock.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then she felt another smooth object.

WEBER: OK, now I for real found it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And she invited Frank Telewski to get down there and check it out.

TELEWSKI: Wow. Oh, wow. Hello, bottles. Oh, thank you. All right, well...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Marjorie Weber says getting to pull out a bottle was really special.

WEBER: The last person to touch it was Professor Beal 140 years ago, you know, this person who was writing letters to Darwin.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The researchers immediately planted the seeds in potting soil, and earlier today David Lowry went to the lab to check.

LOWRY: Looking over the soil - oh, my God, there's something that germinated. We've got one seedling coming up right now.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Marjorie Weber says Beal's original question is still relevant.

WEBER: We know that seeds can last a really long time in really perfect conditions, like in seed storage vaults or in the permafrost. We have these instances of seeds lasting a long time. But we really don't know how long seeds lasts just in the soil, and that's where most of the seeds are.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: There are four bottles left, so this seed viability study still has 80 more years to go. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLESTHEFIRST'S "THE DESCENT")

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.