'Doomsday' Seed Vaults Preserve Biodiversity

Rory Cameron explains why these vaults may safeguard the planet's most precious treasures.

Rory Cameron
4th December 2017
Svalbard Global Seed Vault, via Wikipedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Seed banks. No, they’re is not a place where conkers go to have a meetings about potential mortgages. Nor are they another name for sperm banks, although they are a form of gene bank. What they are, are depositories and vaults of seeds of the flora found on planet earth, preserved at incredibly carefully controlled temperatures and moisture levels. Think of them as an iCloud for the plant life information of the planet.

So why should you care? Well, seed banks may just save the world.

The five largest seed banks in the world comprise of: Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Project, Wakehurst, here in England, where collecting seeds from environments that are most vulnerable to climate change is a priority. (The bank also hopes to house 25% of all known species of plant seeds on earth by 2020). Then there’s Navdanya, in Uttrakhand, India, which is home to 5,000 crop varieties, focusing largely on the preservation of grain species, including 3,000 species of rice alone; Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Svalbard, Norway, which regularly hosts global environmental problem-solving and innovation events, and conferences concerning topics related to food security and climate change. There’s also the National Centre for Genetic Resources, Fort Collins, Colorado, which recently developed an ecologically cleaner alternative to fertilizers that contribute to heavy metal watershed pollution; and the Vavilov Research Institute, Russia, where nearly 90% of the plant specimens contained cannot be found at any other seed or gene bank in the world.

Plants that are more drought resistant, more nutritious, more resistant to disease, and increase yield are all possible thanks to seed banks

Any one of these enormous genetic banks could be used to help repopulate the vegetation of planet earth in a doomsday-like scenario, yet the actual methods of protecting our planet are in fact multifaceted.

Seed vaults can help protect crops.

The primary objective of seed banks is to preserve biodiversity, which is especially important whilst we are in the midst of the most severe climate change the world has witnessed since the ice age. Climate change, which will continue to eradicate much of the biodiversity of flora and fauna alike, as species struggle to adapt to changes in their environment, brought about by increased methane and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and in turn more acidic oceans and extreme weather.

Many genetically modified varieties of plants and foodstuffs stem from seed banks.

Indeed, plants that are resistant to more extreme climate may be created by breeders, through preserved genes of other flora, in controlled environments. Plants that are more drought resistant, more nutritious, more resistant to disease, and increase yield are all possible thanks to seed banks, and thus could save millions, even billions of lives through the aversion of future famines – another increasingly worrying effect of climate change. As you might expect, on top of crossbreeding new seeds, many genetically modified varieties of plants and foodstuffs stem (no pun intended) from seed banks.

Whilst scientists have extracted and regrew plant materials buried in the Siberian permafrost over 30,000 years ago, the longevity of seed banks and their contents depends entirely on whether they are protected with appropriate accordance of importance.

Such is this importance, that during the Nazi German siege of the town during World War II, 12 scientists of the Vavilov Research Institute chose to starve to death, rather than consume the precious contents of the vaults.

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