The Seed Vault: Protecting Seeds from the Brink of (Bio)Destruction

**Featured image credit Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale frøhvelv (via Flickr). No changes/modifications were applied to this image.

Protecting the world’s biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault…if something were to happen to one of those collections around the world, they can always come back to the seed vault and retrieve what might have been lost.  –Brian Lainoff, spokesman for Crop Trust

More than just a place to store money or for the government to malevolently perform ghastly experiments on unsuspecting pre-nuclear war folks (brownie points for the reader who gets this video game reference), the vault can be a haven for global seeds.

Seed Vaults & Their Role for Preserving World Plant Species

Affectionately known as the ‘Doomsday Vault‘ to some, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault resides in Norway’s island of Spitsbergen of the Svalbard archipelago [4].

Since 2008, the Vault has been depositing seeds from all corners of the globe, and can hold up to 4.5 million crop varieties, or 2.5 billion seeds [1, 3]. The Vault currently stores 864 309 seed samples from all parts of the world, whether from Africa to Asia to Latin America [1]. A quick visit to  the Nordic genetic resource centre’s website–Nordgen–provides the public with the kind of the seed samples stored at the vault. (Want to know the seed species, genus, taxon, or its continental origin? Download these nifty files to find out [2]!)

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This photograph illustrates the Vault’s entrance; notice the beautiful artwork displayed on top of the entrance (which, according to other photos, illuminates at night), and the polar bear ice sculpture on the left.

(Photo image credit Dag Terje Filip Endresen via Flickr; no changes were applied to this photograph)

While it may sound like a cool setting for an scifi horror movie, the Vault provides an appropriate environment to store samples of seeds from select gene banks around the world (repositories that store genetic material of living matter) [1].

The seeds in the Vault are literally chilling in temperatures of -18°C due to the layers of permafrost. Combined with low-moisture levels, the insulated, cold environment allows seed dormancy and low metabolic activities [1, 4]. The Vault is also situated well above sea level, so there’s little threat of flooding. Additionally, while the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located within 1000 km of the North Pole, it’s still accessible through a scheduled flight [1].

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault preserves global seeds in the event that the biodiversities of certain crops or plants are threatened [1, 3]. Seeds are also preserved in the Vault as a way to preserve plant species in the event/s of climate change, human conflict, and natural disasters [3, 5].

In September 2015, the non-profit International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) requested a withdrawal of several thousand seed samples, they originally deposited in the Vault (Note: I found that 2 news sources–Science Focus and NBC News–reported different number of seeds that were requested for withdrawal. Science Focus claims ICARDA requested 116 000 samples, while NBC news reported requests of 16 500). 

ICARDA’s founding mandate to promote agricultural development in the dry areas of developing countries remains highly relevant today…The ICARDA genebank holds over 135,000 accessions from over 110 countries: traditional varieties, improved germplasm, and a unique set of wild crop relatives. These include wheat, barley, oats and other cereals; food legumes such as faba bean, chickpea, lentil and field pea; forage crops, rangeland plants, and wild relatives of each of these species… -ICARDA.org, Mission and Vision

The ICARDA headquarters and gene bank originally resided in the Syrian city of Aleppo. However, due to Syria’s civil war, the gene bank and its seed samples were damaged, some of these samples possessing remarkable, drought-resistant traits, useful for a changing climate in dry environments [5, 6, 7]. ICARDA hopes to reproduce their seed samples in their facilities located in Morocco and Beirut, of which some these samples will be sent back to the Svalbard’s Global Seed Vault [6]. Since 2011, 250 000 lives have been lost as a result of the war and over 11 million individuals have been driven from their homes [6, 7].

Learning More About Seed Vaults and Gene Banks

Venture into the labyrinth and intricate architecture of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault without leaving your seat. On their website, Crop Trust has provided the public with an interactive visit to the Vault using stunning 360° views. I also stumbled across a 12-minute video (I believe extracted from a CBS-related program) about the Vault and the seeds stored there.

Otherwise, there are centres around the world that house seed samples for Vault’s same purpose of protecting plant biodiversity. While these seed banks may not be as cool (pun unintentional) as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, they still contain some of the world’s remarkable plant varieties.

For example, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico houses 175, 526 plant varieties, most seeds being of maize and wheat varieties [1, 8]. Moreover, headquartered in the Philippines, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) houses one of the most samples of rice varieties in their gene bank of 121 595 samples [1, 9].

Any readers interested in learning more about gene banks should refer to Crop Trust’s nifty interactive map, that provides general information about these global research centres (as well as how many seed varieties from these centres are contained at the Svalbard Global Seed Bank).

References

  1. Crop Trust. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.croptrust.org/what-we-do/svalbard-global-seed-vault/
  2. Nordgen. (n.d.).  Retrieved from http://www.nordgen.org/sgsv/
  3. Earthsky. (2015, October 29). First withdrawal from Doomsday Vault. Retrieved from http://earthsky.org/todays-image/first-withdrawal-from-svalbard-global-seed-vault
  4. Hopkin, M. (2008, March 26). Biodiversity: Frozen futures. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080326/full/452404a.html
  5. McNamara, A. (2015, September 30). Svalbard Global Seed Vault makes first withdrawal in wake of war in Syria. Retrieved from http://www.sciencefocus.com/news/svalbard-global-seed-vault-makes-first-withdrawal-wake-war-syria
  6. Jamieson, A. (2015, September 25). Syria War Forces First Withdrawal from Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/syria-war-forces-first-withdrawal-artic-seed-vault-n433471
  7. Doyle, A. (2015, September 21). Syrian war spurs first withdrawal from doomsday Arctic seed vault. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-seeds-idUSKCN0RL1KA20150921#Gho3p8M6oS6kO0dI.97
  8. CIMMYT. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.cimmyt.org/en/what-we-do/germplasm-and-seed
  9. CGIAR. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.cgiar.org/cgiar-consortium/research-centers/international-rice-research-institute-irri/

Renee has received her B.Sc. in Honours Life Sciences at McMaster University. She loves educating others about different topics in science, and has developed a passion for scientific outreach. When she’s not writing articles for Hemtecks, she’s either volunteering or checking her social media accounts every 20 minutes. Along with Tiffany and Adelle, she also facilitates the blog’s Facebook page. 

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