Global seed vaults Longyearbyen in Svalbard Norway

Seed vaults hold the key to our planet’s future

Seeds are used to spending their time below ground, but in a seed vault, there’s not much room for growing. Instead, they sit patiently, as the world changes around them.

Like some kind of subterranean Noah’s Ark, seed vaults are a living archive of Earth’s delicate flora. Plants on Earth have propagated themselves using seeds for roughly 300 to 400 million years, and before this, more primitive plants used spores to spread and reproduce.Seeds are like the embryos of plants yet to come. Many grow easily and can flourish all over the world, while some can only take root in very particular climates and locations at certain times. Seed vaults give us a glimpse not only at the sheer number of plants on our planet, but the wealth of biodiversity we must protect for future generations, come rain or shine.

Beneath the surface

There’s more to seed vaults if you scratch below the surface. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is perhaps the world’s most well-known seed vault, based on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, located in the desolate Arctic Svalbard archipelago. While the frosty ground around Spitsbergen is hardly the place for seeds to grow, the seed vault is a literal goldmine.

Every single seed in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds potential solutions for sustainable agriculture. Solutions that are vital for feeding a growing population and achieving a green transition.

– Lise Lykke Steffensen, Executive Director at NordGen, Nordic Genetic Resource Center

It is estimated that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has capacity to contain 4.5 million seed samples, with the entire underground complex separated into three vault rooms, with seed samples wrapped in foil packages, placed in special shelving and chilled at minus 18 degrees celsius. Each sample is reported to be able to contain roughly 500 seeds each. This means the entire vault has total capacity to house over 2.25 billion seeds. Imagine being the unlucky person who had to count each one!

The Svalbard Vault has been steadily collecting seeds since January 2008, and during its tenth anniversary, it was estimated that it contained over 1 million distinct varieties of crops – equivalent to over 13,000 years of agricultural history.

Preserving our biodiversity

Seed vaults such as this serve a very specific purpose: Svalbard Global Seed Vault contains ‘duplicate’ copies of seeds held in gene banks all over the world. The idea is that, in the event of some global catastrophe, this seed vault acts as something of a Noah’s Ark, preserving precious fragments of the world as it once was, in biological terms.

In rural Sussex, the UK has a special facility of its own, dedicated to preserving 2.4 billion seeds as part of the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB). According to the MSB, two in five plant species are at risk of extinction, emphasising the challenge facing biologists at present. The MSB is estimated to have samples of virtually all UK-based planet species, meaning that, assuming some cataclysm caused every plant to vanish from the UK’s landscape, the MSB would have just about enough seeds to allow it to re-plant practically each species from scratch. Species which can be freeze-dried are often the best candidates for being kept at seed banks such as the MSB, especially those at most risk due to climate change.

While botany might seem like just putting some seemingly inert seeds in the ground, waiting for them to grow, it is a vibrant field of natural science which is doing its bit to help preserve the biodiversity of our planet. Let’s just hope we can look after the plants we already have and don’t need to rely on these seed banks to help repopulate our planet with plants just yet.

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