Seed banks are gene pools of seeds from food crops and other rare species. If seeds from the reserves are destroyed, seeds from seed banks can be used to generate new crops. Seed banks are not open to the public as are seed libraries or seed swaps. Maintaining seeds in a seed bank will preserve the seeds during times of natural disasters, disease outbreaks, or even war.
Seeds can remain dormant for decades as long as the storage environment remains cool and dry. Seeds that can be desiccated, also known as orthodox seeds, will not lose their vitality thereby keeping the DNA true to type to the parent plant. Examples of plants that produce orthodox seeds include tomato, potato, chili pepper, bell pepper, peas, beans, some grasses, and tobacco. Recalcitrant seeds damage easily if subjected to too much dryness and below zero temperatures; therefore, the seeds must be planted periodically in order to replenish the seed stock in the seed bank. Examples of plants that produce recalcitrant seeds include avocado, mango, cocoa, and some horticultural trees, as well as plants used for medicinal purposes.
Seeds used for storage in seed banks require special preparation for each species. The seeds’ moisture content is usually less than 5 percent and stored at -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Seeds replanted at predetermined times will replenish the seed bank with fresh seeds for yet another period. Properly stored seeds can hold their vitality for hundreds, even thousands of years.
Documentation of seeds in the seed bank includes plant identity, location grown, amount of seeds saved and the vitality of the seed.
There are approximately 1,300 seed banks in the world storing 6 million seeds. The seeds stored do not represent all regions of the world and is only a small portion of the world’s biodiversity.
* Millennium Seed Bank Project, located in England, UK, is the largest seed bank in the world. The Welcome Trust Millennium Building provides storage space in a multi-level nuclear bombproof vault underground. Seeds are shared throughout the world with testing for germination and other research completed every 10 years.
* Spitsbergen, a Norwegian island located 812 miles away from the North Pole, is home to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The vault has two airlocks along with two blast-proof doors. The walls are approximately 3 feet thick with concrete reinforced with steel. The vault is below the permafrost keeping the temperature just below 32-degrees Fahrenheit. The vault was built to sustain a nuclear war. The first seeds were introduced into the vault February 26, 2008.
* Australia houses the NSW Seed Bank established in 1986. The NSW mainly store native Australian flora seeds as well as known threatened species.
* Russian geneticist and botanist, Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943), founded Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry located at St. Petersburg. Vavilov gathered seeds from all over the world and started the first seed bank.
In-situ-conservation is a strategy used in preserving plants in their natural habitat. A tree planted in protected sites is called an arboretum.
* One of the oldest seeds dated is the carbon-14 Judean date palm, said to be 2,000 years old. The seed was recovered while digging at the Herod the Great’s palace located in Israel.
* Russian scientists regenerated a 32,000-year-old Arctic flower seed native to Siberia (narrow leaf campion) in February 2012. Seed tissue grew in test tubes then transplanted in soil. The seed was found along with 800,000 more buried 124 feet below the Siberian permafrost; with only three viable enough to plant.
Image Caption: Storing Native Seeds: Packages of native North American accessions in cold storage at the WRPIS. The WRPIS maintains approximately 4,500 accessions of native species, more than 1,500 of which have been acquired in the last five years as part of a cooperative project with the Bureau of Land Management’s Seeds of Success Program. Credit: RC Johnson/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.5)