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.
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.