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The World's Longest-Running Experiment

We thought the Pitch Drop experiments took a long time, but a botany experiment at Michigan State University started in 1879, and is scheduled to continue until the year 2100! Dr. William James Beal wanted to find out how long weed seeds can lay dormant and still germinate. So he buried 20 bottles of seeds in a secret location. Each bottle contains 50 seeds each of 23 different plant species. The original idea was to dig up a bottle every five years and plant the seeds to see how many would germinate. But along the way, the time between each bottle was extended -twice- so now a bottle is dug up only every 20 years. Dr. Frank Telewski and Dr. Jan Zeevaart last dug one up in 2000.

Fifteen bottles in, the clear winner is Verbascum blattaria, or moth mullein, a splay-flowered weed common throughout the United States. Verbascum has popped up consistently in every bottle, and “of the 50 seeds of that particular plant, 23 of them germinated” in 2000, says Telewski, a “phenomenal” result. Distant second place goes to Malva rotundifolia, a round-leafed mallow nicknamed “cheeses” after its wedgelike seeds. Only one of those seeds sprouted in 2000.

Dr. Telewski was a graduate student when the 1980 bottle was retrieved. He is now looking forward to being there in 2020 for the next one. Read the story of the continuing seed experiment at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Frank Telewski)


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Not quite as long running is the Illinois Long-term Selection Experiment, which started in 1896. It's the "longest running continuous genetics experiment in higher plants".
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