Definitions

Seedbank

Seedbank

A seedbank stores seeds as a source for planting in case seed reserves elsewhere are destroyed. It is a type of gene bank. The seeds stored may be food crops, or those of rare species to protect biodiversity. The reasons for storing seeds may be varied. In the case of food crops, many useful plants that were developed over centuries are now no longer used for commercial agricultural production and are becoming rare. Storing seeds also guards against catastrophic events like natural disasters, outbreaks of disease, or war.

Seed dormancy

Orthodox seeds can stay dormant for decades in a cool and dry environment, with little damage to their DNA; they remain viable and are easily stored in seedbanks. By contrast, recalcitrant seeds are damaged by dryness and subzero temperature, and so must be continuously replanted to replenish seed stocks. Examples are the seeds of cocoa and rubber.

Optimal storage conditions

Seeds are dried to a moisture content of less than 6%. The seeds are then stored in freezers at -18°C or below. Because seed DNA degrades with time, the seeds need to be periodically replanted and fresh seeds collected for another round of long-term storage.

Challenges

  • Stored specimens have to be regularly replanted when they begin to lose viability.
  • Only a limited part of the world's biodiversity is stored.
  • It is difficult or impossible to store recalcitrant seeds.
  • Only 15% of all seedbanked plants are wild species; the remainder are crops.
  • There is a need to improve cataloging and data management. The documentation should include identity of the plant stored, location of the sampling, number of seeds stored and viability state. Other information, such as farming systems in which the crops were grown, or rotations they formed, should also be available to future farmers.
  • Facilities are expensive for third world countries which contain the most biodiversity.
  • Seed banks may be accused of biopiracy.

Alternatives

In-situ conservation of seed-producing plant species is another conservation strategy. In-situ conservation involves the creation of National Parks, National Forests, and National Wildlife Refuges as a way of preserving the natural habitat of the targeted seed-producing organisms. In-situ conservation of agricultural resources is performed on-farm. This also allows the plants to continue to evolve with their environment through natural selection. An arboretum stores trees by planting them at a protected site.

Longevity

Seeds may be viable for hundreds and even thousands of years. The oldest carbon-14-dated seed that has grown into a viable plant was a Judean date palm seed about 2,000 years old, recovered from excavations at Herod the Great's palace in Israel.

Facilities

There are about 6 million accessions, or samples of a particular population, stored as seeds in about 1,300 genebanks throughout the world as of 2006. This amount represents a small fraction of the world's biodiversity, and many regions of the world have not been fully explored.

  • The Svalbard International Seed Vault has been built inside a mountain in a man-made tunnel on the frozen Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. It is designed to survive catastrophes such as nuclear war and world war. It is operated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. A tunnel has been created in a sandstone mountain on Spitsbergen, which is part of the Svalbard archipelago, about 966 kilometers (600 miles) from the North Pole. The area's permafrost will keep the vault below the freezing point of water and the seeds are protected by 1-metre thick walls of steel-reinforced concrete. There are two airlocks and two blast-proof doors. The vault accepted the first seeds on 26 February 2008.
  • The Wellcome Trust Millennium Building (WTMB) houses the Millennium Seed Bank Project. It is located at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex. It provides space for the storage of thousands of seed samples in an underground vault.
  • Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) was a Russian geneticist and botanist who, through botanic-agronomic expeditions, collected seeds from all over the world. He set up one of the first seedbanks, in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), which survived the 28-month Siege of Leningrad in World War II. It is now known as the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry. Several botanists starved to death rather than eating the collected seeds.

See also

References

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