Seed Banks Move to Save Threatened Species Just as regular banks are important to our financial future, seed banks — with vaults containing precious plant DNA — may be key to our planet's future. Those running them say the facilities are in urgent need of preserving species threatened with extinction by climate change.
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Seed Banks Move to Save Threatened Species

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Seed Banks Move to Save Threatened Species

Seed Banks Move to Save Threatened Species

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Fifteen years ago, a special bank outside London opened its vault to customers. Yesterday, that bank marked its billionth deposit.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: That deposit was a seed from African bamboo and it was stowed away in a massive international seed bank. This was no small event. Great Britain's prime minister in waiting, Gordon Brown, showed up.

Mr. GORDON BROWN (Chancellor of the Exchequer, United Kingdom): What you are doing is preserving the planet, making sure that people can enjoy the planet in the right way in the years to come.

INSKEEP: The Millennium Seed Bank has been called the most ambitious plant-conservation project of our time. It's part of Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens and its goal is to collect and store seeds from the world's native flowering plants. Think of it as a kind of horticultural Noah's Ark. There are many seed banks around the world and one reason they matter is because the world's climate is changing.

NPR and National Geographic are spending the year reporting on how those changes affect us and the things we care about. NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine explains how we're saving plants for an unknown future.

KETZEL LEVINE: On the outside chance you hadn't noticed, an awful lot of plants produce seeds. In fact, the ancient Mesopotamians were so good at harvesting them from their crops, they needed someplace safe and dry to bank them. Then they could, as needed, take out what they put in. Sound familiar? Yes indeed, the model for the way we bank money today.

True, you're not likely to see a run on a seed bank, with people desperate to get their crops and native plants out. But the Millennium Seed Bank's Robin Probert is aware of a certain panic to get plants in.

Mr. ROBIN PROBERT (Millennium Seed Bank Project, Royal Botanic Gardens): The whole urgency for this kind of work has heightened over the last few years as we've begun to understand more about the pace of climate change.

LEVINE: So imagine, if you will, alpine plants that love the cold, but can't outclimb rising temperatures. Or fresh water plants choking down saltwater as floods bring oceans inland. Extreme cases, yes, but it could happen. Enter the Millennium Seed Bank, a place to keep threatened plants alive. Call it a survival plan.

Mr. PROBERT: We know that a huge number of wild plant species are important to people for all kinds of reasons. You know, we use - approximately one in six of all wild plants are being used as a source of medicine. One in 10 of all wild plants are being used as a source of food, particularly in developing countries. This the least we can do, is to collect the seeds and get them safely stored in a seed bank such as ours.

LEVINE: Or like the ones in China, Brazil, South Korea. Or this one near the North Pole.

Unidentified Man #1: The Nordic Gene Bank. Nordiska Genbanken.

LEVINE: Deep inside an abandoned coal mine on an Arctic island, crop seeds bide their time until the opening of the Norwegian Seed Bank. Its pet name: the Doom's Day Vault.

(Soundbite of men speaking in foreign language)

LEVINE: Thirteen hundred miles away, a bank in St. Petersburg predates any talk of climate change. The 80-year-old Vavilov Institute is named for the Russian scientist whose belief in plant genetics put him in prison, where he died.

And our last stop, 5,000 miles west to my part of the world, Portland, Oregon, and right into the vault of the Berry Botanic Garden.

(Soundbite of engine noise)

Unidentified Man #2: We're in a small room about eight feet by 10 feet that is...

LEVINE: Chilly.

Unidentified Man #2: Chilly, yeah.

LEVINE: And as you hear, noisy. So lets step out into the Botanic Garden, where the seed bank resides - a six-acre emerald jewel where ribald rhododendron laughs at the perils of extinction, leaving resident botanist Andrea Raven and Ed Guerrant to do the worrying.

Ms. ANDREA RAVEN (Botanist, Berry Botanic Garden): One in five plants are in danger of going extinct in this country.

Mr. ED GUERRANT (Conservation Director, Berry Botanic Garden): That's a number you hear, it's - I don't like to argue numbers. But it's pretty clear that biodiversity is being lost at a rate that we really haven't seen since the dinosaurs.

LEVINE: At least the dinosaurs didn't have to worry about condo development. Native plants have been steadily losing habitat for a variety of reasons, including development, and will be further displaced by climate change.

At the Berry Botanic Garden, Raven and Guerrant collect and freeze seed of rare and endangered Northwest native plants. Then, on what seems to be a crisis-to-crisis basis, they restore lost populations to the wild.

Ms. RAVEN: And in fact, we're working on a project right now doing just that with a plant is called Malheur wire lettuce.

LEVINE: What is it look like?

Ms. RAVEN: It looks like a weed. It's not a stunningly attractive plant.

LEVINE: And yet that it exists at all is reason enough to preserve it.

Ms. RAVEN: And we don't know what part it plays within the ecosystem. I mean there are many, many reasons people have for wanting to save rare plants.

LEVINE: And not so rare plants. Remember those ancient bankers, the Mesopotamians. Their lives depended on the crops they banked - chick pea, barley, wheat. Now let's consider their descendants, some of whom farm in that same region; I'm talking about Iraq.

In 1996, Iraqi botanists dipped into their own seed bank, packed up 200 kinds of seed, and sent them to Syria for safekeeping. A wise move. Once the Iraq war began, the Iraqi seed bank was looted. It had been kept in the town of Abu Ghraib.

Ms. RAVEN: Many of the plants that they had stored there through seed would have been really evolved for that climate.

LEVINE: Botanist Andrea Raven.

Ms. RAVEN: And the fact that they're able to have large destruction and still be able to hopefully at some point bring those crops back I think is a very hopeful thing.

LEVINE: Whether it's seed from crops or rare native species, seed banks are all about preserving genetic diversity. And what clever chlorophyllic creatures plants are. They've evolved to handle whatever's been thrown at them - hot and humid, wet and mucky, dark and dry.

But as any gardener knows, put the wrong plant in the wrong place and you're courting catastrophe. Water-loving iris resents being high and dry. Yet if it can't keep up with the fast pace of climate change, how will that iris survive? How about by borrowing a little DNA from some next-of-kin cactus. And that's what gene-splicing scientists with access to seed banks may some day want to do.

Ultimately, sealed in every one of these freezer-ready foil packets is a great deal more than genetic code. Each banked seed is an act of faith, a defense against war, climate change, environmental disaster, and the raw material to regrow the world.

Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: To peek into the seed vaults of the Berry Botanic Garden in Portland, go to That is part of our Climate Connections series. You can learn more about plant conservation on the current "Wild Chronicles," a program seen on public television.

This is NPR News.

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