October 16, 2014 — You might expect the world’s number one biodiversity hotspot for wild plant species to be located in a tropical rainforest. Thanks to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, it might well be in the heart of the United Kingdom instead.
Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is working to provide a safety net for global plant diversity by collecting and storing seed samples from plants all across the globe. The seeds are inspected, cleaned, dried, placed in a sealed glass container and stored in a vault at –20 C to prevent germination while keeping them alive.
In addition to gathering specimens from almost all native plants within the UK, Kew has been working with partners in over 80 countries to collect samples from more than 34,000 wild plant species, with a particular eye toward those deemed most at risk or most useful. All told it has almost 2 million seeds in storage.
What’s the point?
The researchers at Kew Gardens see the value in things we tend to take for granted, like fresh air, clean water and even the food we eat. Plants are an integral part of our daily lives, but with our rapidly changing Earth, they are often at risk. Thanks to human activities and climate change, it is estimated that up to 100,000 species of plants are facing extinction.
The vault at the Millennium Seed Bank essentially acts as a backup to safeguard against this threat. According to Paul Smith, head of Kew’s Seed Conservation Department, “there is no technological reason why any plant species should become extinct. We have every opportunity to pass on our entire botanical heritage intact to future generations.”
The project has other benefits, too. Each year, it sends more than 1,000 seed samples to researchers across the globe. The seed bank also has played a role in global forest recovery.
So far Millennium Seed Bank Partnership scientists have secured seeds from over 13 percent of global plant species, but they’re dreaming bigger. By 2020, in just six short years, they hope to have securely stored 25 percent of the world’s plant diversity.