Take the 2-minute tour ×
Skeptics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientific skepticism. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I came across a story on Facebook about David Latimer, who put spiderwort plants into a bottle garden ("terrarium") in 1960, watered it in 1972, and then sealed the bung. The plants have been living, thriving even, in their own ecosystem since.

The story was reported in the Daily Mail.

Thriving since 1960, my garden in a bottle: Seedling sealed in its own ecosystem and watered just once in 53 years

  • David Latimer first planted his bottle garden in 1960 and last watered it in 1972 before tightly sealing it shut 'as an experiment'

  • The hardy spiderworts plant inside has grown to fill the 10-gallon container by surviving entirely on recycled air, nutrients and water

Here it is again in The Times. There are a few more places this article can be found in various forms on the web.

I find myself extremely skeptical of this notion, however. I'm no zoologist or expert in plant sciences, but I am an engineer and the principle of energy conservation in a closed system already doesn't sit well here in my mind. Also, the article being mostly on websites such as The Daily Mail (the only exception being The Times), most of which have a reputation for posting spoof / exaggerated articles already makes me even more skeptical. I also noticed that most of the articles I found, including the mention on Facebook, state that this plant has been growing for different time periods. Some say 50 years, some 53. The Facebook one says it's been growing for 40 years. This kind of inconsistency also brings up red flags in my book.

Lastly, my brother is doing his Masters degree in Plant Sciences and he had the following to say in a nutshell (paraphrased from a phone conversation):

This is pure BS. That bottle would have very little CO2 in it. In order for that plant to grow like that it would need to have thousands times time CO2. Even if you were to open the bottle from time to time, it's not a matter of fresh air, it's a matter of the amount of molecules available in the bottle. Because it's a 'nearly' isolated system, the amount of nutrients and water that is able to circulate would limit the growth at some point, regardless of how much sun it gets. In any case, random fungi and plant sicknesses would grow faster in there and cause everything to rot and die before it got the chance to get anywhere near that kind of growth. It happens all the time in my greenhouses.

So I ask is this article accurate? Is my brother with his Master's degree (whom I'm inclined to believe) right that it is impossible?

share|improve this question
    
Didn't they try to do this with the Eden project? If I remember correctly, it failed due to an inability to keep a stable environment inside a "bottled" system. –  Polynomial Apr 14 '13 at 21:31
3  
@Polynomial: You may be thinking of Biosphere 2 - the Eden project isn't a hermetically sealed ecosystem. –  RedGrittyBrick Apr 14 '13 at 23:17
1  
@Sancho: Notability is provided by the newspaper links. I see the brother's claim as providing justification for being skeptical, and a reason for asking for more reliable evidence than a single person's claim being reproduced by news agencies. One kind of proof might be more examples. –  Oddthinking Apr 15 '13 at 1:49
1  
Took me a bit of time to find this, but conceptually isn't this basically the same idea as the commercial EcoSpheres? –  rjzii Apr 15 '13 at 16:31
2  
Remember too: A plant sealed in a bottle IS NOT a closed system--plants are powered by the sun or at least a light source, and therefore your fears should be alleviated on that point. –  avgvstvs May 22 '13 at 12:32
show 9 more comments

1 Answer 1

As mentioned in the comments, the fact that The Times published this story, with a photograph of said plant, is already compelling evidence that it happened, but of course it's possible they have been fooled. If we're not willing to take The Times nor Mr. Latimer's word as evidence, we really have no way to prove that he's telling the truth, as we haven't been there for 40 years to watch the plant grow.

However, there is no reason, in theory, the a plant like this could not survive in a bottled environment. The key element missing form your brother's argument is that bacteria in the soil will break down the dead leaves that fall from the plant and release CO2 back into the bottle. (Plants also release a tiny amount of CO2 on their own, though nowhere near as much as they consume during photosynthesis.)

Unfortunately, most of the actual published articles I can find on the quantity of CO2 released by bacteria are written from the perspective of "global climate change", so I'm always bit skeptical of their numbers. The most accessible one I could find on short notice was this article from Yale's E360 magazine, which is usually fairly even-handed. Among other things, it notes:

Together, microbes lock up — and release — a huge amount of carbon. The world’s soils — the product of bacteria and fungi breaking down plant matter — contain more than 2.5 trillion tons of carbon.

Meanwhile, the microbes that break plant matter into soil release 55 billion tons a year of carbon dioxide.

Given that the bottle containing the plant in question appears to be almost 1/2 filled with soil, I would not be too skeptical of its ability to survive in a sealed environment for a long period of time.

Also, note that of the four seeds he planted, only the spiderwort survived. It doesn't mention which species of Tradescantia he planted, but members of that genus are known for being particularly "hardy" plants. This botanical comparison of them mentions that they actually thrive in conditions when they are not watered regularly (though they won't flower nearly as often, something that is evident from the article's photographs):

Spiderworts prefer moist, well-drained soils, but do not like their roots to be overly wet or dry. [...] Foliar diseases are exacerbated by frequent overhead irrigation. Garden spiderworts are winter hardy in USDA Zones 4-9.

share|improve this answer
2  
The photo "is already compelling evidence that it happened, but of course it's possible they have been fooled." - therefore, it's not evidence. –  Sklivvz Apr 15 '13 at 20:44
3  
@Sklivvz it's compelling evidence to me; I could equally argue that every paper cited on this site is a forgery, hoax, or mistake (and I consider a photo in The Times far more reliable than many other reliable sources...) –  Michael Edenfield Apr 15 '13 at 21:08
2  
@MichaelEdenfield we seem to disagree on what evidence is. To me, evidence is a hard facts, thus objective in nature. –  Sklivvz Apr 15 '13 at 21:23
4  
I agree that evidence should be objective. What is subjective is whether you believe that the evidence you are given by an external source is both 1. sufficient to justify your acceptance of a conclusion, 2. a representation of facts that are actually true. In this case, if you reject The Times as evidence, and you reject the botanist's own word as evidence, there's not really any definitive evidence left short of watching the plant grow with your own eyes. So I tried to provide evidence that the OP's objections were unfounded as well. –  Michael Edenfield Apr 15 '13 at 21:28
3  
@MichaelEdenfield the thing is, no real measurements were made of this system. For instance: the claim is that the plant has been living in a sealed ecosystem for forty years. However, the bung is likely a common cork bung, and thus permeable to atmosphere - meaning that there's probably been a (slow) exchange of gasses between the bottle and the outside world. That sort of non-attention to detail and exaggerated claims makes even the Times not a great source. It's not really about credibility - it's about thoroughness, and how science reporting lacks thereof. –  Tacroy Apr 16 '13 at 21:59
show 8 more comments

protected by Community Aug 16 '13 at 10:56

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.