Stashing seeds in 'Noah's fridge'
Researchers worldwide are collecting seeds from wild plants to guard against the ravages of climate change.
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Something about the 21st century has triggered a flurry of seed-banking efforts. In 2001, the US Bureau of Land Management inaugurated its Seeds of Success program, an effort to bank native US plants for restoration projects and a contributor to MSBP.Skip to next paragraph
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More recently, Norway announced the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Svalbard archipelago above the Arctic Circle. Buried in permafrost, the bank endeavors to keep seeds from humanity's 21 food crops safe from various possible catastrophes – war, blight, climate change, and an asteroid strike among them. The MSBP differs from the Norway effort in one crucial aspect: It seeks to preserve wild species with no immediate economic value. And it seeks to do so by preserving their genetic diversity.
Natural selection "selects" for the individuals within a species that do best in the present circumstances. If hot and dry weather prevails in a field of daisies, for example, then the individual plants that prefer hot and dry conditions will thrive and set seed. If cool wet conditions prevail, cold-loving individuals will prosper. Scientists think that the best way to preserve a species is to preserve its genetic variation – to ensure that any single species contains both heat- and cold-lovers, so to speak – and to give natural selection a greater number of options to "select" from.
"If we're looking at evolutionary processes with a changing environment, the greatest amount of diversity provides us the greatest number of genes to ensure filling niches," says Jonathan Dunn, the botanical conservation coordinator at CRES. So "the best way we can facilitate [plants'] ability to change is to maintain diversity."
On these grounds, scientists involved in MSBP roundly reject comparisons to Noah's Ark: Only two members of each species wouldn't preserve nearly enough genetic information to create a viable population. "Noah's fridge" is slightly more palatable, says Michael Way, the Americas coordinator in the seed conservation department of the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens near London, which houses MSBP. But even this designation falls short. MSBP's seeds aren't hoarded and stored away for when the metaphorical floodwaters subside. "There's an active exchange taking place so that our partners are benefiting," says Mr. Way. "They're able to do their job in-country better."
Here's an example: Dalea azurea, a flowering shrub that grows in only one Chilean valley, nearly ceased to exist in the wild, mostly due to habitat loss. By 2003, seeds were so hard to find that even banking prospects for future reintroduction looked dim. But, working with Chilean conservationists, the MSBP grew Dalea in greenhouses. In the end, they succeeded in increasing their seed store, ensuring the possibility of the plant's future restoration in Chile.
But ultimately, seed from banks like MSBP might be used in much larger-scale – and more controversial – restoration projects.