Buried seed vault guards thousands of crop varieties
The remote, frozen Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores more than 740,000 sample of seeds that contain genetic treasures such as heat resistance, drought tolerance, or disease and pest resistance.
Buried deep in a mountainside located in a group of islands nearly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off the northern Norwegian coast lies a vault charged with the task of safeguarding nearly three-quarters of a million seed samples from around the globe. It might sound like something out of a movie, but this seed preservation bunker is very much a real-life agricultural security project.Skip to next paragraph
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Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located near the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a far-northern location that exists in total darkness for nearly four months out of the year. The vault serves as backup to living crop-diversity collections housed in “gene banks” around the world and is designed to protect seed varieties from both natural and man-made disasters.
Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, explains that the seeds that the vault receives are crucial to preservation of global crop diversity: “Our crop diversity is constantly under threat, from dramatic dangers such as fires, political unrest, war, and tornadoes, as well as the mundane, such as failing refrigeration systems and budget cuts.
"But these seeds are the future of our food supply, as they carry genetic treasures such as heat resistance, drought tolerance, or disease and pest resistance.”
The vault currently secures over 740,000 samples, which are kept frozen by layers of permafrost and thick rock that insulate the vault and keep its inner temperature far below freezing, even in the absence of electricity. Its initial construction was funded entirely by the Norwegian government, but it is now maintained through a partnership between the Norwegian government, Nordic Genetic Resources Center, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
In late February and early March, a total of 24,948 seed samples arrived at the vault, just in time for celebration of its fourth birthday. Three particularly interesting and celebrated arrivals included wheat from a remote region of Tajikistan, amaranth that was once cultivated by the Aztecs, and barley that is now being used to brew beer in the American Pacific Northwest.
The wheat originated in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, one of the highest mountain ranges on the planet. The region, fraught with hot summers and frigid, snowy winters, harbors an impressive variety of wheat, much of which is especially interesting to scientists as they search for a variety that is resistant to a powerful strain of wheat stem rust that has been known to devastate crop yields.
The amaranth, sent by the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), was first cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas 8,000 years ago, and its seeds were once eaten as a nutritious grain by these ancient cultures. Amaranth has recently been “rediscovered” as a high-protein, gluten-free alternative to wheat and has once again risen to popularity as a result.