Rich research pickings from world’s largest seed bank

At 78 degrees North, 1,600 kilometres from the North Pole in the Svalbard archipelago, Norway is developing the world’s largest seed bank. Deep inside a permafrost mountain, at a constant temperature of -18 degrees Celsius, countries are depositing seeds for food production, to save them from extinction from natural catastrophes, war or mishandling.

There are now 725,000 different seeds in portions of 500 each stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which has a total capacity of 2.5 to three million seeds and has been labelled the Noah’s Ark of seeds, or a "doomsday vault".

It is a collaborative initiative between the Norwegian government and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, or GCDT. The idea of a seed bank is attributed to American agriculturalist Cary Fowler, a former head of the trust who has received several international awards.

Planning began in 2004 and Fowler led an international committee that investigated the establishment of a seed vault and developed the scientific and operational plan. The vault opened in 2008 and that year TIME listed it as one of the world’s best innovations.

Fowler told University World News: “Because the seed vault has such a long time horizon, there are obvious and unique ways in which it will be of interest to seed physiologists. What really happens to seeds in storage for very long periods? What are the differences between species and between populations within species, and why?

“The seed vault, together with researchers, will help address such questions.”

The vault functions as a back-up for existing gene bank collections, and its fundamental purpose is to prevent the loss or extinction of diversity in agricultural and other crops.

“I believe it will accomplish this purpose. This is very important – in fact essential – for future plant breeding, much of which is still done in universities. It is also critical for basic biological research,” said Fowler. Research into seed diversity produces a “surprisingly high percentage of articles in peer-reviewed journals in the biological sciences”.

The vault is managed by the GCDT, a Bonn-based international organisation working to conserve crop diversity. Funding, under an arrangement between the Norwegian government, the trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, is from governments and organisations across the world. Together they have pledged over US$230 million to the trust's work.

The Svalbard vault has the capacity to store all the different seeds that are currently held in more than 1,400 seed banks across the world. There are estimated to be around 1.5 million distinct seeds of agricultural crops. Priority is given to seeds that are important for food production and for a sustainable agriculture, notably in developing countries.

“There is a wonderful unknown and unforeseeable benefit of continuing to have this incredible diversity of our agricultural crops. The seed vault today houses and protects more than 100,000 different types of rice, for example, and more than 100,000 different wheats, not to mention the diversity of many other crops both popular and obscure,” said Fowler.

“These seed samples are in fact the result of thousands of years of co-evolution with people. It is the biological foundation of current and future agriculture. What value or utility will it have in the future? I can only assume that researchers in institutions of higher education will give us the answers.”

Low temperature, low humidity and limited access to oxygen within the Svalbard mountain will ensure that the seeds retain their ability to grow. The seeds are owned by those who deposit them in the bank. Researchers, agricultural producers and others wanting access to the seed stock, must receive permission from the owners.

The trust’s new Executive Manager Åslaug Marie Haga, who has been a minister in three Norwegian governments, told University World News: “The Global Crop Diversity Trust has a clear and large mandate even though it is a relatively small organisation with limited resources – smaller, in fact, than a typical university department.

“Achieving our goal of ensuring the long-term conservation and availability of crop diversity sounds simple in some respects, but it isn’t. No organisation could ever hope to organise or finance the collection and conservation of everything (including the many duplicates and near-duplicate varieties that exist).

“So how, in the face of a changing climate, new demands from agricultural systems, limited finances and challenging politics, does one construct a rational and effective system that is sustainable? There are many tough, researchable questions hiding here.”

Haga said the GCDT welcomed initiatives from universities and research institutes for cooperation, especially researchers “looking for pragmatic solutions to real problems".

The trust has, for example, had a long-term, very productive relationship with Stanford University and researchers from several other universities that “has been invaluable for us in understanding how our programmes and priorities should be formulated in order to deal with climate change”. There is also a long-term agreement with Rhodes College in the US, through which student interns are hosted at the trust.

The Svalbard seed vault has received great international attention and is frequently visited by international delegations. In 2009, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Mon visited and expressed gratitude to the Norwegian government, the trust and NordGen for “the remarkable accomplishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

“This gift to humanity and symbol of peace will continue to inspire and serve for generations to come,” he said.