Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Banking for the future

I like to broach on the subject of conservation of plants. It is interesting to note that this has become quite an issue in the international arena where everyone is worried about how to keep plants alive for the future generation. Many a time we have to be reminded that plants are among our most valuable resources for survival and well being. When disaster strikes, causing paralysis to agriculture, seed banks serve as insurance policy and come to rescue. Growing samples of the many plants on the ground is maybe the best way to conserve and maintain species of plants (or animals) in their natural habitats. This is not practical to conserve a large number of plant species and their wild relatives in their natural habitats. This is why using another way of preserving using seed banks is a popular, efficient and economical method. This is globally recognised as well.

Did you know that this idea of storing seeds in a seed bank was conceived by a Russian botanist called Nicholai Valvilov. He actually collected 200 000 cultivated plants from all over the world. The oldest seed bank is located at the Valvilov Institute in Russia and the newest in Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) in Norway in the Arctic region. There are 1400 seed banks all over the world. Some of the internationally recognised seed banks are kept in institutions, research organisations and government departments.

A simple seed bank may just consist of a number of cold freezers in a seed laboratory while the bigger ones are more sophisticated with many cold rooms for short term, mid term and long term storage. Some are even run by robots like the one in Japan. Nowadays, seed banks serve as a global system of information and seed exchange making it easier for many to exchange crop diversity to meet the future needs at a time of increasing food prices, climate change and water scarcity.

A seed bank deals with things which are alive and therefore we must handle them with great care. Seeds are collected, processed and only those with good quality are stored and catalogued. Very similar to the librarian who organises the different books according to their category and labels them appropriately. These stored seeds do not immediately bring benefits. They are only used in times of need. Many plant breeders select these seeds and use them to breed new varieties using the old or modern technologies. Seed banks serve as rich genetic resources that could be tapped for both conventional breeding  and modern crop biotechnology. In order to keep the seeds alive, the seeds will be constantly checked using many methods. These seed banks will ensure the conditions the seeds are stored are suitable for them to be alive.  Management of these seed banks is expensive and needs careful monitoring of the storage conditions.  We will discuss more on this subject next time.

By Christina Stephensons