A noah’s ark for plant seeds is opened

The British Millennium Seed Bank wants to archive the seeds of one tenth of all plant species

Not only animal species are dying out at a crude rate, but plant species as well. By 2050, scientists estimate that a quarter of all plants could have disappeared, with potentially significant consequences for life on Earth. A British Noah’s Ark wants to ensure the survival of at least a part and hopes for successors in other countries.

As fast as in the last 10000 years, when people began to change the world massively in their favor, the living conditions on Earth had changed only in times of global catastrophes, for example, by the impact of a large meteorite. All in all, in the history of life the species richness increased continuously, mass extinctions, which once could destroy up to more than 90 percent of all species, as 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian, were of course afterwards again motors of evolution. Without the presumed impact of the meteorite 65 million years ago, which, in addition to changes in vegetation, caused the extinction of all large animals, especially dinosaurs, mammals, and ultimately man, would not have had a rough chance.

Of course, the estimates of the experts differ by many orders of magnitude. Also, estimates of the total number of species range from 10 million to 200 million. Known are just 1.8 million, of which 270000 are plants. It is clear, however, that the rate at which species become extinct is far greater than the rate at which new ones are created.

Because now not only the destruction of the diversity of species has increased, but we can also record the diversity of species better as well as we have possibilities to store seeds, eggs or DNA, at least also the desire seems to grow to archive at least the disappearing life in such a way that it could possibly come to a resurrection once again with the help of the people. If the living conditions have changed radically in the meantime, even a few re-bred specimens of a species will hardly have a chance to spread again.

On 25. August in any case, one of these cryonic life archives, a modern Noah’s Ark, will be opened in Great Britain. The Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) is a project of the Royal Botanics Gardens and is located in Wakehurst Place, southern England. The bank, which costs more than 250 million marks and sees itself as a security policy measure, is financed in large part by income from the British lottery, which was put into a number of millennium projects. But also Orange and the Wellcome Trust have participated. Of course, not all of the known 270000 plant species can be collected from this world-wide seed bank "rescued" are. The goal is to store the seeds of 24000 species by 2010. Already collected the seeds of 1400 plants occurring in Great Britain. In total, 250 million seeds of almost 5000 species are already stored in the MSB. Hugh Pritchard, the head of the MSB, ames that the rate of extinction of plant species is probably higher than we imagine it to be.

The storage makes high demands. The incoming seeds are first dried at low humidity until their moisture content is only 5 percent. The seeds are then cleaned and inspected, with an additional 50 seeds of each species being harvested to check their quality. Their germination will also be tested, which will later be done every 10 years. The seeds are eventually placed in glass jars and stored at a temperature of -20 degrees Celsium in three underground vaults. As a precautionary measure "Back-up"-Seeds still stored in Scotland. 80 percent of the seeds are said to last 200 years under these conditions, but some can survive centuries or millennia if freeze-dried.

The seed bank will focus on dryland species, which are just as threatened as rainforest species. More than 60000 square kilometers of land are to become desert every year. However, 20 percent of the people have to live on the products of the drylands that have not yet been devastated and on which many plants useful for humans thrive: "If we think of the population growth and the prere it exerts on natural areas, then these areas will continue to decline. So we will lose species … We may not yet have a use for many of the species we currently conserve. But 30 percent of the medicines we use today are based on products or chemicals derived from plants." However, only one fifth of the known plant species have been examined for possible medical applications.

The MSB is to work closely with the countries from which the collected seeds originate and help them establish their own seed banks. The collection, storage and distribution of the seeds is only done with the approval of the countries of origin. The knowledge and income should be shared fairly on the basis of agreements.

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