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EMILY KWONG, HOST:
Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here with NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce. Howdy, Nell.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hey, Emily.
KWONG: Hey. So you promised you would tell me the story of a secret science mission done under the cover of darkness.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Indeed. Indeed. So this happened earlier this month. A small group of scientists in Michigan rendezvoused at 4 a.m. So, you know, it was dark, cold. They told me it was raining or kind of snowing. And they brought shovels, plus an old map to essentially dig for a kind of buried treasure.
DAVID LOWRY: Know where we're headed?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yup.
LOWRY: OK, good.
KWONG: This sounds unmistakably like a caper.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It is. It is a caper. One of the folks who went on this little expedition, David Lowry, told me it wasn't your typical research project.
LOWRY: Usually, you're counting 1,064 insects, and then you're doing it again all day long. So this was much more exciting than it usually is.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And that's because, you know, this experiment is really unusual.
KWONG: Yeah. What's so special about it?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, for one thing, it started in 1879.
KWONG: 1879? So that means it's - what? - 142 years old.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. Great math there.
KWONG: (Laughter) Thank you.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Usually, researchers try to do studies that will get them results as quickly as possible, you know? But in this case, a botanist named William Beal had a question and he knew that finding out the answer would require setting up a study that would outlive him. So, you know, that's exactly what he did. And Beal's experiment has been handed down from generation to generation of scientists.
KWONG: So today on the show, a scientific experiment that just won't quit. We'll find out what the researchers needed to dig up and why they did it in the middle of the night.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Plus, we'll hear how they feel about taking over a study that started before their birth and will keep on going after they die.
KWONG: You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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KWONG: So, Nell, tell me about this guy William Beal. you said he was a botanist. What was the big question he wanted to answer?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So it's really kind of a simple question. How long can seeds remain viable underground? And, you know, the local farmers had been asking him, if we keep weeding a plot of ground, at what point will the weeds stop coming up? And Beal just didn't know how long the seeds of weeds could be in the ground and retain the ability to germinate.
KWONG: So how did he try to figure that out?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, he got 20 glass bottles. And Frank Telewski, who's a professor of plant biology at Michigan State University - he told me that Beal filled these bottles very carefully.
FRANK TELEWSKI: 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: Now, these plants were just common weeds. And Beal buried the bottles in a secret spot on what is now the campus of Michigan State University. His plan was that every five years, he'd dig up a bottle and see what seeds could sprout.
KWONG: OK, more math. So if it's one bottle every five years and there are 20 bottles, that means Beal expected his experiment to last 100 years.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. And you know, it's gone on longer than that. Beal dug up a bottle every five years until he retired in 1910. Then he passed the experiment on to a colleague, who passed it on to a colleague and so on. And these caretakers made the experiment last longer than Beal ever intended just by stretching out the time between bottles. So they went from one bottle every five years to every ten years. And now they dig up a bottle every 20 years.
KWONG: I love how this has been passed on. So the last bottle dug up was 20 years ago?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, 21 (laughter). It was dug up in the year 2000. That's when Frank Telewski went out with the previous caretaker to the secret location. Frank became the keeper of the experiment at that time, and he was supposed to dig up a bottle in 2020. But, you know, the coronavirus pandemic.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, you know, it got delayed a little bit. But Frank Telewski had been planning for the dig for a while before that and thinking about the most important part of the excavation, specifically who should go with him and learn the experiment's secrets, so they could carry it into the future.
TELEWSKI: I decided we needed to pass this on to the next generation, as I turned 65 last year.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In fact, David Lowry told me a couple years ago, Frank came into his office with the secret map. Frank handed the map over and said, you know, in case something happens to me, you have the map.
LOWRY: And a couple months later, he had a stroke. Fortunately, he mostly recovered from that. But there was a moment there where he was like, wow, I'm really glad that that handoff had occurred.
KWONG: Yeah. So that really is the hazard of this kind of long-term experiment. Someone loses the map.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Absolutely. I mean, continuity is an issue - I mean, having it go, really, from person to person. And to make sure it never gets lost, there are now three new caretakers so that, you know, there's always at least two people who know what's going on with this thing. All three are scientists in their 30s and 40s at Michigan State. So we've got David Lowry, Marjorie Weber and Lars Brudvig. All of them had heard about this experiment many years before. It's a famous experiment, but none of them realized they might be a part of it. Lars Brudvig told me that taking this on feels different than any other research he's done, like, in his own lab.
LARS 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. And I really, like, want to make sure that it's done right and carried forward properly, you know, for - both for the generations of plant biologists in the past who have been involved with it but also for the generations that are still to come who will be involved in the future.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, you know, it was a really big deal when these three gathered together with Frank Telewski on April 15th, very, very early in the morning before sunrise.
KWONG: And, Nell, why did they have to go out and check on this experiment in the dark? It was just so no one was around to see them digging in the secret hiding spot?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's partly that. Also, you know, it's just so the seeds in the bottles that are going to be left in the ground don't get hit by sunlight, you know, which might...
GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Trigger germination or affect them.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, you know, they went out there. It was dark, cold. You know, it was kind of snowing and raining and wintry mix. They're digging in the ground.
MARJORIE WEBER: About nine inches right here.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even with the map and Frank there to show them the way, it was hard to find the right place. You know, they got off track. They had to dig in more than one spot. Marjorie Weber told me she was down on her belly on the ground with her head in this hole, kind of, like, feeling around in the darkness, in the dirt.
WEBER: Oh, I think I found it. Wait. Maybe not. Oh, it was a rock.
WEBER: Yeah, I'm serious. I don't know why Beal would put a rock down here.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But then she felt something smooth.
WEBER: OK, now I for real found it. Yeah.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And she asked Frank if he wanted to come down and have a look see.
FRANK TELEWESKI: Wow. Oh, wow. Hello, bottles. Oh, thank you. All right.
KWONG: Oh, there's no relief like science relief, you know? Your experiment's going to work out. So did they just extract these bottles from the dirt?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Just one bottle, one bottle...
GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Very, very carefully. Marjorie Weber told me, you know, it was wild.
WEBER: The last person to touch it was Professor Beal 140 years ago, you know, this person who was writing letters to Darwin.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They rushed it to a lab, spread the seeds out on potting soil. And then Friday afternoon, the 23, 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.
KWONG: That is so exciting. So how many species do they think they will be able to germinate after more than a century in the ground?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, last time in 2000 - so that was - what? - 120 years? Only a couple of different plants were able to do it. So we'll see.
KWONG: A weed caper with a cliffhanger. I like it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. And they've actually added some experiments that Beal could never have dreamed of back in the 19th century. For example, another researcher named Margaret Fleming took a couple of seeds from a species that hasn't germinated in about a hundred years. And she's going to run some RNA and DNA studies to see if any of the cellular machinery inside the seed is still active. Marjorie Weber told me that Beal's original question is still relevant today.
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 last just in the soil. And that's where most of the seeds are.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She and Margaret Fleming are the first women to be involved in this project since it began.
WEBER: And that's a cool landmark. And I think it's going to be really cool to see how that changes over the next three or four bottle openings. Also, like, what's the scientific community going to be like in 2100?
KWONG: This is, like, the best time capsule ever.
KWONG: And 2100 - I mean, I can't even picture it. So it's a bottle every 20 years. That means there are four more bottles to go? - like, eighty years' worth of bottles left?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Your math continues to impress. Yes. Telewski is hoping he's going to be around to see the next one. So that'll be 2040.
TELEWSKI: If I'm fortunate, I'll be 85. And I sure hope I can be there as a spectator and can watch the team dig it up with their new colleagues. So I would expect at that point in time, Marjorie and David and Lars will have picked another person or two or three to join the team so that it can be passed on to the next generation.
KWONG: Nell, this, in a way, beautifully mirrors what seems like the whole scientific enterprise to me. Like, each generation just takes science a little bit further and then passes it on to the next one, who takes it a little further then.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. And, you know, scientists never or at least almost never get to see, like, all the answers they'd hoped for in their lifetime. You know, like Beal, none of the folks who dug up this latest bottle are going to live to see the end of this experiment unless something dramatic changes in human lifespan. But they told me it's been pretty inspirational just in terms of thinking about, like, what kinds of long-term experiments they might set up.
KWONG: And would they consider burying even more seeds for it?
KWONG: OK, well, Nell, thanks for digging through all of this, quite literally.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It is my pleasure, although I should note that they taped the digging themselves. I was not there, just vicariously. I will be keeping close watch, though, and getting updates on what green plant life comes out of those antique seeds. So we'll see.
KWONG: Yes, we'll see.
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KWONG: This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact checked by Rasha Aridi. I'm Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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