School of Life Sciences | Ask A Biologist

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How Long Can Seeds Live Underground?

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  • Dormant: something that is inactive. Not growing or developing.
  • Fossil: the remains, or an impression of remains of a plant or animal that existed in a past geological age that has been removed from the soil... more
  • Paleontology: a science dealing with the life of past geological periods. Often, people think of paleontology as only the study of fossils, like dinosaur bone hunters. Paleontologist study much more than bone fossils, including plants, pollen, spores, and seeds both living and fossilized. These scientists are called palynologists.
  • Radiocarbon: a chemical analysis tool used by scientists to find out how old organic materials are based on their content of the radioisotope carbon-14. Radiocarbon dating is believed to reliably tell the age of organic materials up to 40,000 years old. Also called carbon dating and carbon-14 dating... more

How long can seeds last?

You might be asking yourself, how long can a seed stay dormant? This is a question that scientists have tried to answer in many different ways. 

Scientists have found they can still germinate seeds found in preserved plant samples in an herbarium. An herbarium is a collection of pressed plants. The oldest living seed they have found this way is 90 yrs old. That's probably older than your grandmother!

A 100 yearlong seed experiment

William James BealAnother scientist, William James Beal, started an experiment in 1880 - that's more than 100 yrs ago! He put seeds into 20 time capsules and he dug one up every 5 years. He died 25 years after he started the experiment, so he was only able to dig up 5 time capsules. He found that some of the 25 year old seeds could still sprout. Another scientist knew of his experiment and decided to keep it going. For the next 15 years he dug up another time capsule every 5 years. He was still finding seeds that could germinate, so he decided to change it to every 10 years. That way he could make the experiment last longer. The latest time capsule was unearthed in April of the year 2000, by yet another scientist. The seeds inside had been buried for 120 years, and some of them could still germinate. The next time capsule is scheduled to come up in the year 2020, the seeds will be 140 years old, how old will you be?

What's the oldest seed that has been able to germinate?

To try and find the oldest living seed, some scientists have been collecting and trying to germinate seeds found in archeological and prehistoric sites. They thought they had found a 10,000 year old living seed, because they found it in an animal burrow in layer of soil that was that old. But some scientists argued that they couldn't really be sure that the seeds were as old as the burrow they were found in. How could they be sure the seed didn't fall in while the paleontologists explored the site? So a scientist named Jane Shen-Miller decided to radiocarbon date old seed pods and germinate the seeds inside. She now holds the, so far, undisputed record for the oldest living seed to germinate is over 1000 years. It was radiocarbon dated to 1288 years old (there is a possible error of +/- 271 years).


References:

J. Shen-Miller, et. al. (Nov., 1995). American Journal of Botany. Vol. 82, No. 11 , pp. 1367-1380.
Seeds from a jar

Celery seeds from a jar.  How long could they be stored and still be planted and grow? A long running experiment is letting us know the answer.

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Seeds from a jar

Celery seeds from a jar.  How long could they be stored and still be planted and grow? A long running experiment is letting us know the answer.

Share to Google Classroom

Be part of Ask A Biologist

by volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteer page to get the process started.