Seed banks: saving for the future

In 1926, just outside of St Petersburg in Russia, botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov set up the Pavlovsk Experimental Station. It was one of the world’s first “seed banks”. The term “seed bank” or…

Saving seeds can protect us from future calamities. Simone Cottrell/AAP

In 1926, just outside of St Petersburg in Russia, botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov set up the Pavlovsk Experimental Station. It was one of the world’s first “seed banks”.

The term “seed bank” or “gene bank” describes a place where seeds are stored, such as food crops or rare plants. Why store seeds? We depend on plants for things like food, construction, medicine, clothing, soil and oxygen. Many plants are now classed as rare or threatened and storing seeds is the only way to ensure their survival.

During the 28 month siege of Leningrad in World War II, scientists at the Pavlovsk Experimental station boxed up various seeds, moved them to the basement, and took shifts protecting them from the German army. A number of scientists even ended up dying before the end of the siege in 1944, choosing to starve rather that eat the seeds.

The station collection now houses more than 100 varieties each of gooseberries, raspberries and cherries, and over 1000 varieties of strawberries. In fact 90% of this collection exists in no other research collection anywhere else in the world. As most of these cannot germinate from seed, they are stored as plants in the ground.

Why do we need seed banks?

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimates between 60,000-100,000 plant species are threatened with extinction- that’s around one quarter of all known plants. The biggest threats to plants now are land use change, over exploitation, and climate change.

The demand for food is predicted to rise dramatically in the next few decades as population increases. Currently we depend on fewer than 12 of the world’s 300,000 flowering plants for around 80% of the food we eat. Natural disasters or disease outbreaks are a real threat to existing food crops and having seeds stored away is an insurance policy against these threats.

“Resilience” is stronger when we have a diversity of plants rather than monocultures. With monocultures, if one plant gets sick, disease is more easily spread to all of the other same types of plants. This is especially true in commercially grown crops used in agriculture or in restoration works for a natural ecosystem.

Certain traits of a plant and a plant’s DNA may also prove useful in the future. In western medicine, only 20% of the worlds known plants have been examined for medicinal qualities. There is also the potential for new food crops to be discovered - Australia may soon have it’s first commercial native grain crop through the selective breeding of a native grass called Alpine rice (Microlaena stipoides) that is high in protein and gluten free.

Ronnie Vernooy/Bioversity International

What’s happening in Australia?

Australia has a unique, diverse range of native plants. Around 23% of Australia’s plants are listed as endangered, one of the highest rates of endangerment in the world.

The Australian Seedbank Partnership (ASBP) brings together 14 different organisations including botanic gardens, state environment agencies, academic and non-government organisations. So far the partnership has secured one-third of Australia’s plants in conservation seed banks.

The fieldwork has led to the rediscovery of plants thought extinct, such as the Showy Violet (Viola betonicifolia) in South Australia, and translocation projects for plants like the chalky wattle.

The ASBP is working on a “1000 species project” - collecting and banking the seed of 1000 rare and threatened, provincially endemic or economically important species from across Australia.

Through seed banking and associated germination trials, the “plants on the precipice” project aims to determine the germination requirements of montane and alpine plant species. This may prove invaluable for preserving species most exposed to the threats of climate change.

The ASBP is also focused on the protection of species susceptible to fungal diseases such as Phytophthora and the newly introduced Myrtle Rust.

One of the biggest issues seedbanks face in Australia and around the world is continual funding. Seed bank collections require long-term, ongoing curation. The facilities that house them need ongoing maintenance. As such, regular funding is required for the life of a seed bank and government support is of major importance. Support from State and Territory Governments vary. The New South Wales and to some extent Western Australian Governments provide excellent support for the partners from those states, where as support from the Queensland and Northern Territory Governments is virtually non-existent. Historically, support from the federal government has been somewhat limited, particularly in regards to the ongoing operation of the seed banks.

With the rising threats of climate change, over exploitation and land use change, it is becoming increasingly important to ensure seedbanks around the world are supported now and in the future.