Doomsday Vault Seeks to Save Seeds

Scientists opened a secure storage space for 2 billion seeds yesterday on Norway's remote Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean. Christina Walters of the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation says the goal is to protect the hundreds of thousands of plant species on earth.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

On Norway's remote Svalbard Islands…

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Ah, yes, the Svalbards.

STEWART: In the Artic Ocean, a new doomsday vault designed to preserve more than 2-billion seeds in the event of a catastrophe was officially opened yesterday. The vault will start off with 100 million seeds from 268,000 varieties of various crops.

But this is not the first vault. Our next guest says much of the science used in its development came directly from a similar seed vault right here in America, in Fort Collins, Colorado, which has been around for about 50 years.

Christina Walters is a research scientist who oversees the Fort Collins vault. She's acting research leader at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, which is part of the USDA Agriculture Research Service. Hi, Christina.

Ms. CHRISTINA WALTERS (Acting Research Leader, National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation): Hi, good morning.

STEWART: Good morning. So how far back can we trace the practice of seed sequestering?

Ms. WALTERS: Ooh, as long as people have been around during agriculture. People have always been exchanging seeds, but in the United States, since the plant introduction stations opened in 1898.

STEWART: And when they opened in 1898, were they opened to make sure that farmers could get the seeds or people who needed them? Or were they opened with the same idea of this Norway vault of there might be a catastrophe someday and wipe out crops?

Ms. WALTERS: For farmers.

STEWART: Yeah. Now the latest addition to the seed vaults, the Norway collection, can you tell us what's different about it from others?

Ms. WALTERS: What's - the genius behind the Norway vault is that it's an international collaboration, and they've gotten together just about every country to work together to get crops and genetic diversity of crops consolidated in a single spot.

STEWART: So now what's the goal of the vault where you work? The - excuse me -the seed vault in Fort Collins?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALTERS: It's pretty similar. We have a very large collection, and it's for crop diversity. And really what - we're a working collection. We want to make sure that all these riches that the earth has provided us are available to scientists for whatever they need genetic diversity for.

STEWART: When you say working collection, what do you mean?

Ms. WALTERS: I mean, that they're constantly distributed. We distribute hundreds of thousands of (unintelligible) a year - or about 100,000 a year.

STEWART: So you're kind of a seed library?

Ms. WALTERS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALTERS: We call it Fort Knox, but I like the idea of a library much better.

STEWART: So who are the people who come and ask you for these seeds? I mean, is it just for scientific research, or can some farmer who needs a crop give you a jingle?

Ms. WALTERS: Well, they certainly can, and we'll be more than happy to answer their questions. But generally, they don't want - the farmers don't really want we have to offer because we have a lot of wild - just seeds from wild places, and they look kind of weedy. And who wants them are the plant breeders, who -they have hidden genes for disease resistance or drought resistance or maybe a new product or maybe a better nutrition. And so the crop breeders really are the ones that want them because they have these hidden genes.

STEWART: Christina, can you describe what these vaults look like, and what are the conditions that allow the seeds to be preserved?

Ms. WALTERS: Well, it's really cold.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: How cold is really cold?

Ms. WALTERS: It's the same temperature as your freezer. We work in Centigrade. It's minus 18 degrees Centigrade. It's about zero degrees Fahrenheit, I think. And it's really big, and we have movable shelves because a full freezer is an efficient freezer, and the bags are these - they're foil-laminate composite packaging, air-tight, water-tight, and there's just racks and racks and racks, 480,000 (unintelligible) that we have of unique collections, plus other types of collections in this great, big freezer room.

STEWART: Oh please, oh please tell me that it is entirely computerized…

Ms. WALTERS: Oh, yes. Everything is bar-coded. We're modern.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Can you imagine? I just had to ask. I don't know. We're talking to Christina Walters, a research scientist who oversees the Fort Collins seed vault. Now, who decides which species, which seeds end up in this vault?

Ms. WALTERS: Well, in the United States, we have what they call crop germplasm committees. And they're for different species, and these committees decide what's missing, what we really need, what needs exploration, and so there's a whole system there to go out exploring for genetic diversity.

Most of American crops don't come from the United States. We're an immigrant country, and so we have explorations every year to different parts of the world to collect seeds, and it's mostly a scientific decision.

STEWART: Now are seeds the only thing that you store in these vaults, these cold, cold vaults?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALTERS: Well, no. We have a lot - we used to be called the National Seed Storage Lab, but we started preserving the buds on trees and shoot tips and all kinds of plant germplasm. We also have - starting in the year 2000, we've developed an animal program, so we store mostly semen from animals, domesticated animals. And we have some insects, and we have some microbes, just life forms that are important to people, that actually make our lives better.

STEWART: When you think about your job, what part of it is the most exciting to you, the most interesting to you?

Ms. WALTERS: Oh, God. It's - I love my job. We work with just about everything, and we're not really specialists. We're generalists in diversity for plants. So I can work on - you know, this week, I'm working on rye. And next week, I'm going to be working on some palms. And the day - you know, the week after that, oh, I've got a lot on my list. But we just work on different species all the time, and they respond differently to the conditions that we use, but there are also some basic commonalities. And that makes me think that we're working on something that's pretty fundamental to life, how to preserve life.

STEWART: Christina Walters, acting research leader at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. Thanks, Christina.

Ms. WALTERS: Thank you.

STEWART: I guess you don't want to get on stinkweed duty. That's a bad week.

MARTIN: Yeah, that's a week you want to…

STEWART: I think rye duty sounds pretty - palm.

MARTIN: You want to work on the card catalog or something.

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