Special vault in Norway guards world’s seeds from disaster

Imagine a huge, reinforced concrete vault dug into the side of a mountain on a dark Norwegian island just a few hundred kilometers from the North Pole. What is stored inside?

The surprising answer is: seeds.

In recent weeks, hundreds of seeds from around the world have made their way to their frosty new home. The seeds are sent from gene banks from as far away as the Philippines and Ethiopia – and now they are going there from Canada, too.

The government of Norway, along with help from the Glo­bal Crop Diversity Trust, has developed the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, sometimes referred to as the Doomsday Vault, to conserve plant materials for fut­ure generations. It is de­sign­ed to be the most secure con­servation facility in the world, existing to store backup copies of the world’s seeds in case the primary repository holding them is compromised.

Canada’s foremost gene bank or repository of seeds is Plant Gene Resources of Can­ada (PGRC), located in Saska­toon. It is part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s re­search centre on the University of Saskatchewan campus.

Agriculture Canada ap­point­ed the first Plant Gene Re­sources officer, and established Plant Gene Resources of Canada back in 1970. Until early 1998, it was located on the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, but it was then moved to a modern facility in Saskatoon as part of the Saskatoon Research Centre . It coordinates Canada’s germ­plasm system and is the main repository for Canadian seed.

Seed Board research scien­tist Dr. Axel Diederich­sen said in an interview on Monday that Norway was a logical place for such an international effort for several reasons.

First, the Scandinavian countries have been involved in seed storage to protect their genetics since the 1970s, and the island is a secure place to store seeds.

As well, he pointed out that storing the seeds in the north, inside a mountain, will protect them because the area is cool, and keeping it at 7-degrees Celsius is easy inside a mountain. Their new home will allow them to last longer than in a warmer storage vault.

“Inside is permafrost,” he said of the mountain on the island in the far north. “They use added cooling. The con­ditions are very suitable.”

Finally, he said, “Norway volunteered.”

He said the country “decid­ed to build a much larger facility,” capable of much more than just Scandinavian storage, and the world’s seed storage collectors agreed to use that vault.

Diederich­sen said Canada has been preparing for the project for the past six months, and the vault is officially opening to seeds of the world this week.

Dr. Ken Richards, research manager for Plant Gene Re­sour­ces of Can­ada’s Canadian genetic resources program, is heading Canada’s efforts to send back-up copies of the seeds stored in Saskatoon.

“We’re sending about 6,000 distinct samples of seed repre­senting about 90 species of plants,” said Richards. “Be­cause PGRC’s international mandate is to manage collec­tions of barley and oat, and dup­li­cate collections of pearl millet and other seeds, the big­gest part of our shipment is barley.”

Gene banks store seeds in freezing temperatures (usually about -18 degrees Celsius) to ensure long life. However, the seeds do break down over time, so Richards and his staff have to continually track and regen­erate the seeds to ensure they have all types protected in storage.

Barley seeds stored in those conditions have an aver­age life span of 75 to 100 years, but some plants’ seeds, such as let­tuce, will only last a few years.

It is important to ensure genetic diversity for several rea­sons, most importantly be­cause it prevents the loss of genetic traits and acts as a source of genetic material from which improved crop varieties can be developed. They are also sources of material for bio­product development and de­tailed genetic studies.

“We need as broad a range of genetic traits as possible,” said Richards. “Which plants thrive today and which might be of use tomorrow could be very different.”

For example, over the years Canadian breeders have bred wheat to mature in a short growing season and to have tolerance to a number of diseases. But if global warming is as severe as sometimes predicted, Canada may need more heat and drought tolerant varieties in the future. Since those traits would not be found in most currently existing commercial wheat varieties, breeders would need to choose heat tolerant seeds from gene banks such as PGRC.

And re­search­ers are now looking for crops that will pro­duce biofuels. Since the more carbohydrates a plant has, the more biofuel it can produce, breeders might select seeds with high carbohydrate content from gene banks. Since PGRC catalogues morphological, ag­ro­nomic and molecular charac­teristics of each seed sample, it becomes easy to pick and choose the traits needed.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault officially opened on Tuesday, with PGRC’s 6,000 seed samples stored safely inside.

Genetic diversity

Canadian agriculture is based on crops that originated from areas outside of Canada.

According to information from the PGRC we site, wheat originated in the Near East (in such countries as Iran), corn in Mexico and Guatemala, alfalfa in Turkey, and soybean in China. Crops of economic im­portance that are native to Canada are limited and include sunflower, strawberry, rasp­ber­ry, saskatoon berry blueberry, currant, and cranberry.

A large number of native forage and grass species have a significant value in parts of Canada, whether for pasture, ero­sion control, benefit to wild­life or other usages. The largest genera are the bluegrasses, brome grass, milk vetch and wild rye. Almost all of the germplasm needed to increase the genetic diversity of Cana­dian agriculture come from foreign locations.

Canada’s food supply is based on intensive agriculture and that benefits from genetic uniformity of crops.

But, officials note, genetic uniformity increases the poten­tial for crop vulnerability to new pests and stresses. Genetic diversity gives scientists and farmers the ability to develop new plants than can resist those pests, diseases, and environ­mental stresses. Wild ancestors and relatives are the keys to genetic diversity. Unfortu­nately the land base where wild plants grow continues to shrink, and many plant species and variants are disappearing.

Also the conservation of Cana­dian wild plant germ­plasm is important as con­sid­erable material has been iden­tified as unique to the original inhabitants of Canada, and officials work with more than just seeds that produce feed. The Canadian Plant Germ­plasm Sys­tem exists to con­serve, in­crease utilization, and cata­logue germplasm of plants that might otherwise be lost.

Plant genetic resources have been used in Canada for more than a century and all Cana­dians have benefited from their use through increases in the quantity and quality of food consumed.

Benefits from their use have accrued through genetic im­prove­ments. Canadian grain yields have steadily increased over the past decades and the improved quality of Canadian pro­ducts has contributed to their prestige on world markets.

Canola exemplifies Can­ada’s contribution to enriching the world’s crop diversity as a result of the use of germplasm acquired in other countries. In recent times, for example, wide crossing in Hordeum has the potential of increasing salt and drought tolerance; native plums have been used to improve adaptability of domesticated plums; Fragaria chiloensis is better able to withstand drought; and many species of Rubus carry useful traits, including resistance to major fungal pathogens and insect pests. Shrub roses have been developed which are hardy to zone 3 and those are being widely grown, replacing the tender hybrid tea and flori­bunda roses. Many grass gen­era are adapted to conditions due to drought or salt tolerance while others are more adapted to other situations. Researchers continue to evaluate germ­plasm for new crop devel­opment and for value in value-added processing.

Benefits are also derived by conserving Canada’s biodiver­sity of indigenous plant spe­cies. In addition to commonly occurring species, threatened, rare or endangered species are made available for study or for small habitat restoration pro­jects. For example, Canada conserves for the world the larg­est collection of rare and threatened species of native plants in the genus Lotus.