Monday, September 27News That Matters

How One of the World’s Oldest Science Experiments Comes Up From the Dirt

Armed with shovels, gloves and headlamps, the team followed their map to the dig site. The vibe was “very piratey,” Dr. Weber said. Dr. Telewski set to digging a neat, squared-off hole.

But as they carved deeper and wider, there were no bottles to be found. “The birds were starting to chirp,” Dr. Weber said, and the sun threatened to blow their cover. “Morale was low.”

When Dr. Beal first buried the seed bottles, he planned to have one dug up every 5 years, and for the experiment to last a century. But as time passed, those in charge extended the span between digs to 10 years, then 20. Two have been slightly delayed: 1919’s was moved to the spring of 1920 — which Dr. Telewski suspects may have been related to the 1918 flu; and 2020’s was moved to this year, because of Covid-19-related campus shutdowns.

To avoid losing the thread across these decades, a sort of ministry of seed-keepers has developed at Michigan State, with each generation of botanists passing the torch to younger colleagues.

Dr. Telewski — a professor of plant biology at the university, and the seventh person in charge of the experiment — dug up his first seed bottle in 2000 with his predecessor, Jan Zeevaart, who died in 2009. A couple of years ago, mulling his own mortality, he gave a copy of the map to David Lowry, an associate professor of plant biology who had expressed interest in joining up.

Just a couple of months later, Dr. Telewski suffered a stroke. While he has since recovered, “it just showed me how delicate it is to hand these things off while keeping them secret,” Dr. Lowry said. Soon after, Dr. Telewski invited Dr. Weber, who is an assistant professor at the university, and Dr. Brudvig to get involved as well.

Over the years, what were purely practical decisions by Dr. Beal have developed a patina of mystique. Dr. Beal excavated each new bottle under cover of darkness not to be dramatic, but simply to protect the other bottled seeds from sunlight, which might cause them to germinate before their time, Dr. Telewski said. (The team uses green bulbs in their headlamps for the same reason.)