Michigan State University also houses an E. coli experiment that could run for centuries. Since February 1988, the lab of the microbiologist Richard Lenski has been watching how E. coli acquire mutations and evolve over the generations. They’re currently on generation 70,500. Because E. coli replicates so quickly, it’s like watching evolution on hyper-speed.
Despite the time-warping nature of this experiment, Lenski didn’t start out thinking about the far-off future. He thought the experiment would run a few years, and at one point, when he felt he had gleaned as much as he could, he considered shuttering it. “But whenever I mentioned to people I might end the experiment,” he recalls, “they said, ‘You can’t.’ That made me realize people were appreciating it for its longevity and for the potential of surprises.” And in 2003, his lab made one of its most surprising findings yet. The E. coli suddenly evolved the ability to eat a molecule called citrate. By looking at previous generations that his lab had frozen and archived, Lenski’s graduate student was able to reconstruct the series of mutations that gradually led to what had looked like a quick switch.
Every day someone in Lenski’s lab transfers the E. coli into a new flask, using the same type of glassware and the same growth media they’ve been using for 30 years. Like the bacteria, the techniques for studying them have evolved—scientists can now sequence E. coli’s entire genome, for instance—and they will keep changing. Lenski has identified a scientist he will bequeath the experiment to when he retires.
“Of course, for an experiment to go on like this, I’m assuming that science still looks somewhat like today, in the sense that universities will exist, there will be professors with labs, and so on,” says Lenski. “Yet if one looks not so far into the past, that isn’t how science was done.” Just a few hundred years ago, money for scientific research came largely from wealthy patrons, not government agencies.
A centuries-long experiment needs a long-term financial plan, too, and Lenski has been looking for a wealthy patron of his own. His experiment has enjoyed government funding, but he knows it’s unreliable, especially if public support for science erodes. Ideally, he’d like to create an endowment, and he’s done the math: A $2.5 million endowment would provide returns of about $100,000 a year, which should cover the costs of materials and the salary of a technician to work on the experiment every day. “So any shout-out for a big donor would be much appreciated,” he wrote at the end of an email to me.
The 500-year-long microbiology experiment is far cheaper and less involved, as it requires only a researcher to work on it once every 25 years. But it does require people to remember, to value science as an endeavor, and to have the resources to carry it out. Because the experiment began in 2014—before certain world events made everyone realize a collaboration among the U.K., Germany, and the United States perhaps should not be taken for granted—I mentioned to Möller that even planning for a 500-year experiment seems to require a certain optimism about the stability of our current world.
Imagine, he said, the first human who set out exploring: “What is behind the next hill? What is behind the next river? What is behind the next ocean? Our curiosity is always optimistic.” To continue venturing into the unknown is to be continually optimistic.