Thursday, February 17, 2011

Svalbard Global Seed Vault

In yet another strange coincidence, I had already decided to blog about the Norwegian seed vault (1st image) when I found an article about it while catching up with the weird news I had ignored while doing my recent follow-ups... What piqued my interest was the mention of seeds in the collection of the Natural History Museum in a book I was reading on my Kindle. The seeds of the silk tree, collected in China in 1793, sprouted when the museum building was bombed and flooded in 1940. A search revealed that the oldest seeds to germinate were those of a 2,000-year-old date palm tree (2nd image) recovered during a 1965 excavation at the beseiged Masada in what is now Israel. "These people were eating these dates up on the mountain and looking down at the Roman camp, knowing that they were going to die soon, and spitting out the pits. Maybe here is one of those pits." The seeds were soaked and planted in January 2005, a sapling nicknamed "Methuselah" sprouted in March, and by November the tree was 3' tall. By 2008, it had grown another foot and had a dozen fronds. Scientists in Jerusalem were waiting for the tree to bear fruit and hoping to breed and reintroduce it.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault has banked more than 200,000 seed samples (of 500 seeds each) since it opened in 2008. It will likely need to be tapped within the next 50 to 100 years, but is expected to survive events that have threatened other seed banks (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, typhoons in the Philippines, and flooding and lack of funding in Australia). Agricultural scientist Dr. Tony Gregson explains, "It's built deliberately 60 meters above current sea level, which is above any predicted sea level rise, built into solid rock. It's in a permanent permafrost, so the temperature will never rise above about -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) and it is patrolled by polar bears. As far as we can tell, it is the safest place on earth."

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