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Seeds from 142-year-old science experiment have sprouted

David Lowry was impatient for the very old seeds to wake up. For days, Dr. Lowry, associate professor of botany at Michigan State University, had walked into a school basement room, peeked into the growth chamber, and only saw dirt.

But on April 23, he checked again and there he was: A tiny plant, its two leaves stretched out upwards. “It was an incredible moment,” he said.

It was not an average spring shoot. In 1879, botanist William James Beal gathered this seed and thousands more from different weeds in and around East Lansing, Michigan, then hid them in bottles and buried them in a secret location on the Michigan state campus, in an effort to learn if they would still grow taller after years, decades, or even centuries of dormancy. In mid-April, Dr Lowry and four colleagues slipped under the cover of night to unearth one of the bottles and plant its contents, continuing one of the longest experiments in the world.

In late April and early May, more seedlings took a peek above the ground – 11 from Tuesday. One is a bit of a mystery, with more hairy and sharper leaves than those of the other shoots.

The others are probably Verbascum blattaria, a tall grass with pretty flowers that has become the undisputed champion of the experience. Commonly known as butterfly mullein for its antenna-shaped stamens, this species was introduced to North America in the 1800s and lives unpretentiously in fields and prairies.

This plant’s victory is lucky, as it probably wasn’t meant to be part of the experience. Apparently, Dr Beal had intended to preserve a different species, Verbascum thapsus. This one was present in the first eight bottles and fared less well, with few of its seeds growing after only 20 years of dormancy.

V. blattaria first appeared in the ninth bottle, sneaking into what was possibly a case of Dr. Beal’s mistaken identity. Since then it has been quite successful – of the 50 V. blattaria seeds initially placed in each bottle, 31 germinated after 50 years, followed by 34 after 60 years, and so on. In 2000, when the previous bottle was dug up and tested, almost half of the seeds of V. blattaria grew successfully.

It will take time for the team to definitively determine what germinated and conclude that the other seeds are not viable. In the coming weeks, they’ll be giving all the seeds in the bottle some extra clues that might prompt them to germinate: a cold treat, a smoke bath, and a spray with a plant growth hormone. (In 2000, cold treatment resulted in the germination of a single seed of Malva pusilla, the only non-Verbascum plant to appear that year.)

They can also make small cuts on some of the larger seeds. “Break them up on the outside, because it causes germination for some,” said Marjorie Weber, team member and assistant professor of plant biology at the university.

While it’s hard to draw many conclusions at this point, the fact that plants have sprouted after such a long dormancy is “unbelievable,” said Dr Lowry.

Margaret Fleming, postdoctoral researcher and team member, said the readiness of the seeds to germinate demonstrates their health. “Some of them are moving forward as if no time has passed,” she said.

The apparent persistence of V. blattaria – a non-native weed species – also has conservation implications. While species like this can survive underground for decades, if not centuries, they can appear on land that people are trying to turn into native plant habitat – “presenting surprises and perhaps even challenges for projects.” restoration in the future, ”said Lars Brudvig, another team member and associate professor of plant ecology at the university.

Now that the last bottle of seeds has been successfully harvested, the team can’t wait to sow more. Although this experiment does not end until 2100, “the time has come” to start preparing for a follow-up, said Frank Telewski, professor of plant biology at the university and senior member of the Beal experiment. team.

The core of the experience will remain the same – the seeds, the bottles, the weather – but there are some things this group wishes to do differently, to protect their successors from the confusion and temptation they currently face.

They’ll check right away how many seeds of each species germinate when planted – something Dr Beal didn’t do when he buried the bottles in 1879. This has left the current team with no basis for comparison. long-term testing.

They also plan to bury twice as many bottles, leaving one for planting, and one to explore the “coolest question” that is found when it’s unearthed – even if that requires destroying the seeds, the said. Dr Brudvig. And strict seed identification protocols will also help them make sure they don’t mix species like Dr Beal has done.

They may even say goodbye to the secret spot: The “real, long-term ecological research sites” that have been established since Dr Beal’s time may be safer places to hide an important experiment, the Dr Lowry.

As they solidify their plans, they are also building a starter recruiting list. While the new experiment, like the original, will contain invasive and weed plants, it will also include native plants and some known to have unusual germination cues, like smoke and cold.

And Verbascum blattaria will be tapped again, “of course,” Dr Telewski said. The team might even include this year’s sprout seeds – which, after passing through the growth chamber, could have a place in the university’s WJ Beal Botanical Garden. There, after more than 140 years underground, these patient plants could finally smell the sun.

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