One of the longest running experiments takes place in Michigan, since 1879

Posted at 6:50 PM, Feb 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-17 18:50:58-05

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- You might be surprised to learn one of the longest running experiments in the world is housed here in Michigan. It's 137 years old and centers around plant science.

But it's shrouded in mystery, since only a select group of people actually know where its specimens are buried.

The experiment was started by Dr. William James Beal in 1879 at what was then known as the Michigan Agricultural College. It's now known as Michigan State University.

"[Beal] also was a pioneer in education," Frank Telewski, a professor of in plant biology said.

Telewski said Beal had heard from concerned crop farmers about pesky weeds. So Beal wanted to find the answer to a specific question. That is: how long can seeds remain viable in the soil? Will they still sprout after remaining dormant underground over a certain period of time?

"And he set up 20 of these bottles, and this actually is one of the bottles," Telewski held a pint bottle from the experiment. "[Beal] took 23 different species of these seeds."

Beal mixed seeds and sand into the pint bottles. Starting in 1879, Telewski said Beal planted all 20 bottles in the ground and dug up one bottle every 5 years. Eventually, the excavation interval was extended to 10 years and then 20 years. The goal of the experiment was to see if the seeds would still sprout.

"Verbascum blatteria moth mullein was germinating the most consistently," Telewski explained the results of the experiment.

After excavation, the seeds are planted in the W.J. Beals Botanical Garden in the heart of campus.

Telewski said there are five bottles remaining. Again, they're buried in a secret place on campus. The next bottle will be excavated in 2020. That means the last bottle will be dug up in the year 2100.