Twelve seeds sprout after more than 140 years in one of the longest experiments in the world

Twelve seeds sprout after more than 140 years in one of the longest experiments in the world
Researchers discovered one of Beal’s 140-year-old bottles in April.Bild Derek L. Turner / Michigan State University

Don’t give up the twelve plants that now grow on the MSU building. But it was in 1879 when the seeds from which they grew were placed in a glass bottle by American botanist William James Bell, with little soil and the seeds of more than twenty species. Twenty such bottles were buried under the campus.

Plants are part of a special experiment, one of the longest in the world. Every twenty years, university researchers select such a bottle above ground to see if any seeds are still viable. In April it happened again. The soil infused with seeds was placed in a growth chamber under a number of bulbs. And yes.

The biologist involved, Margaret Fleming, says it remains unclear which species the two plants belong to. The other ten are of the same species: the moth-grass, a biennial plant with yellow or white flowers that is also found in the Netherlands. It’s strange in the United States. Twenty years ago, this plant also emerged as a great survivor.

An amazing experience

So we have a nice fact about moths, but is this research any other value? Sure, says Merrill Sons, professor of plant ecology and nature conservation at Utrecht University. It calls it an “amazing experience” because of its long duration.

According to Soons, a lot of research is being done on how long the seeds remain viable, but this usually takes a maximum of ten years. After that, research money is often used up. It’s really surprising that there are so few varieties that still sprout after more than a hundred years. I did not expect that.’

For conservation efforts, it’s important to know how long the seeds remain viable in the soil, she says. This provides insight into which plants can quickly return on their own after a disruption and which are not.

It is not without reason that moths in the Netherlands are found mainly in disturbed, untilled soils, for example along railways. Bell’s experience also showed that most of the other seeds were no longer viable after several years. So you don’t get them back once they’re gone.

There are also seed banks around the world, where seeds are stored to preserve plant species. Here, too, if we do not know how long a seed will be viable, we do not know for how long it will be useful. Although Soons notes that the artificial conditions in this seed bank differ from the natural conditions simulated in this experiment.

After digging up the bottle, the seeds are taken out and placed in a tray in the growth chamber.  Image Derrick L. Turner / Michigan State University
After digging up the bottle, the seeds are taken out and placed in a tray in the growth chamber.Bild Derek L. Turner / Michigan State University

An interesting question is where the big difference in seed life comes from. Margaret Fleming of Michigan State University hopes to investigate – if she gets funding. Can we find the genes that explain this difference? For example, does it have anything to do with the proteins or sugars that provide protection? We simply still understand very little about the processes that cause seeds to age and one day no longer germinate.

Cold treatment

But first, she and her peers will try to germinate more seeds. They first receive a cold treatment, causing the growth of a seed, of the type found around mallow, after twenty years have passed. After this, smoking therapy follows. Some plant species sprout after wildfires. Finally, they try to revive the seeds by slightly damaging them.

Fleming says that the plants that survive are replicated until they bloom and produce their own seeds. Among other things, the researchers are observing whether there are differences between samples that appeared quickly and thus appear relatively unaffected over time, and plants that sprouted more slowly.

Meanwhile, there is talk of a new experiment in which the seeds have been placed underground for years. After all, there is room for improvement in the current experience, Fleming says.

Perennial plants

For starters, when William James Bell packaged seeds all those years ago, he failed to germinate some of them at that point. So it is impossible to check if there are poor quality seeds.

Plus, Bell probably had no intention of collecting moth grass seeds at all, Fleming says. Therefore, the new experiment requires more accurate identification and documentation of the types in the bottles.

Merel Soons of Utrecht University hopes that more perennials will also be included in a new study. Now, for example, there were five long-lived species in the experiment. They all quickly stopped germinating. Is this representative of all long-lived species? This is a little doubtful.

Meanwhile, Fleming is delighted that the experience brings attention to the seeds she loves. They have a knack for sitting in soil for years and making it look like nothing is happening. And then, under the right conditions, they suddenly turn into a plant. this is unbelievable. ‘

After more than 140 years, moth grass sprouted.  Image Derrick L. Turner / Michigan State University
After more than 140 years, moth grass sprouted.Bild Derek L. Turner / Michigan State University

Experiences that last for generations

There are more experiences spanning generations. At the University of Oxford, for example, the bell has been ringing on the same battery since 1840. This battery is somewhat primitive and consists of a stack of disks of different types of metal that generate a very weak electric current. The bell rings slowly and is barely heard. Originally, these types of test settings were supposed to help answer questions about how electricity worked. Now there’s one question left: When is this thing blank?

Another popular long-range experience is the stadium drop experience at the University of Queensland, Australia. Since 1930, the stadium has been flowing from a funnel here. This material looks solid, you can tap it with a hammer, but it is really liquid. One is somewhat sticky: nine drops have fallen in all those years. Scientists have estimated that the substance is 100 billion times more viscous than water. The experience can be followed live via webcam, but don’t expect much.

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