The Longest Experiment

Verbascum blattaria MOTH MULLEIN

Verbascum blattaria MOTH MULLEIN (Photo credit: gmayfield10)

This morning I walked past the longest continuously monitored experiment in the world. Professor Beal of the eponymous gardens at Michigan State University started an experiment to determine the viability of Moth Mullen on campus in 1879. Twenty glass vials containing 1,000 seeds were buried in the botanical garden. The experiment will continue to run until the last seeds are exhumed.

Here is the abstract of a recent publication on the experiment.  [Telewski, Frank W.; Zeevaart, Jan A. D.; American Journal of Botany, 2002]

After 120 yr of burial in moist, well-aerated sand, 23 seeds of Verbascum blattaria and two seeds of a Verbascum sp. germinated and produced normal plants (50% germination for Verbascum). After a 6-wk cold treatment, a single seed of Malva rotundifolia germinated also, producing a normal plant (2% germination). Plants were grown to maturity in a greenhouse, and flowering was induced by exposure to a 6-wk cold treatment. Flowers were artificially pollinated to produce seed of both Verbascum blattaria and Malva rotundifolia. The Verbascum sp. failed to set seed. Collected seeds were subsequently germinated, producing normal plants. F(1) seeds of V. blattaria had a germination of 64%. Seeds (6%) of M. rotundifolia germinated after a cold treatment.

This research reminds me of Anathem by Neal Stephenson. In this book, scientists are seculuded from the rest of society for periods of 1, 10, 100, and 1,000 years at a time. Some experiments and lines of research cannot be hurried. According to an MSU news publication, “the original plan was to dig up a bottle every five years to test the seeds. However, in 1920, it was decided to change the interval to 10 years to prolong the study. Then, in 1980 the interval was extended to 20 years.” The next scheduled digging is another eight years away in 2020.

On the 125th anniversary of the experiment, the logo for the Beal Botanical Garden changed to the Moth Mullen flower.