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Biological Chemistry


Stories of seeds and seeding

by Samantha H. Jones
February 25, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 8


Sedentary seeds

A jar with seeds that says to wait for 200 years before opening.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
In it for the long haul: The final bottle of seeds won’t be unearthed until the year 2100.

In 1879, William James Beal began an experiment he knew he would not complete. Beal, a professor of botany and forestry at Michigan Agricultural College, now Michigan State University, wondered how long seeds could remain dormant underground and maintain the ability to germinate. He filled 20 pint-sized glass bottles with a moist sand mixture and then added to each one 50 seeds of various species. He then buried those bottles in a sandy knoll nearby to be tested in the future.

Beal died in 1924, but his experiment is still going strong. As it turns out, seeds can hang out underground for quite a while and still be revived. Over the years the project has blossomed under a few different scientists, but it now thrives in the hands of Frank Telewski, a professor of plant biology in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University.

Beal initially intended for one bottle to be dug up every five years, but that timeline has now been expanded to every 20 years, taking the experiment up to the year 2100. The last time a bottle was removed from the earth was in the spring of 2000 (Am. J. Bot. 2002,DOI: 10.3732/ajb.89.8.1285). To the delight of Telewski and his lab, almost half the seeds sprouted.

In just over a year, the next bottle will be exhumed, and Telewski is already making predictions. “I expect we will see the moth mullein germinate again given its ability to retain a fairly high level of germination in 2000,” he says. “I would be shocked and a bit disappointed if it didn’t.” He’s also hoping for more sprouting surprises to match the excitement of the last excavation, in which some species were unexpectedly resilient.

Telewski turns 64 this year and plans to retire before the 2040 batch of seeds are tested. “I will be passing the experiment along to the next generation of scientists here at MSU,” he says. “It certainly is an honor to be involved in this incredible experiment.” The Newscripts gang can’t wait to see what happens next year and over the coming decades.


A hairy situation

A cute pug puppy looking sad.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

Crystal seeding is a common technique used to grow larger crystals by aggregating molecules on the surfaces of tiny crystals. Seems relatively straightforward, right? Well, it turns out things can get a bit hairy, as the Newscripts gang learned recently after a lively discussion on Twitter about the technique.

According to the textbook Structure Determination by X-ray Crystallography, there are various ways to improve the quality of crystals for analysis—for example, larger crystals typically give better results. Tinkering with pH is one option, as is playing with different temperatures. A third, less intuitive, option involves using cat hair or whiskers to delicately transfer supersmall crystal particles, or “seeds,” into crystallization wells, where they grow into larger crystals.


Cat hair is a fairly common tool in the X-ray crystallography community, but what about other animals? Turns out man’s best squishy-nosed, snorting friend, the pug, offers another option. Over a decade ago, a study defining a structure involved in ribozyme-catalyzed RNA assembly was published in Science (2007, DOI: 10.1126/science.1136231).

The researchers’ secret weapon: a pug whisker. “My postdoc, Michael Robertson, had a pug at the time, named Duke, who had shed a whisker,” recalls William Scott, a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, who led the study. “Michael was trying a variety of natural and synthetic crystal-seeding implements in an attempt to improve crystal quality, and his pug’s whisker won out.”

Although a pug may have been an ideal donor for one group, another group found a less cuddly creature—the badger—better suited to its seeding needs. “It was a little joke we had in our lab because Madison’s mascot is a badger,” says a former University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate student, Nicole C. Thomas, who completed her thesis work in Samuel Gellman’s lab. Thomas recalls one of her lab mates placing badger fur in a plastic bag next to their crystallization station, labeling it “Break in case of seeding emergency.”

Samantha Jones wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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