Don’t Worry About Doomsday, Botanists Have a Plan

by |July 10, 2015

“It will be like an herbarium for the twenty-first century,” said Jonathan Coddington, the director of an organization called the Global Genome Initiative (GGI), in an interview with Nature.

Coddington is describing a new initiative of the Smithsonian Institution to build a frozen library cataloging snippets of plant tissue from every species on the planet. The goal is to preserve this biomaterial for future genomic sequencing endeavors. It’s a task they hope to accomplish before many plants go the way of the dinosaurs.

Plant tissue samples will be stored at an exceedingly cold temperature of -321 degrees Fahrenheit in these liquid nitrogen chambers. Photo: BBC

Plant tissue samples will be stored at an exceedingly cold temperature of -321 degrees Fahrenheit in these liquid nitrogen chambers. Photo: BBC

They aim to have almost 1000 different plant species preserved by the end of summer. While that’s a small fraction of the 400,000 plant species estimated on the planet, thankfully most of these species are thought to be known to science and just shy of half of them are grown in botanic gardens. These facts makes sample acquisition an easier undertaking. Coddington and colleagues are confident about the diversity their library will soon represent, and the potential for using the repository’s contents in future research projects.

Convincing others about the merits of the GGI’s mission hasn’t been a walk in the park, however. Robert Henry, a researcher involved with cryopreservation efforts at Southern Cross University, told Nature that bolstering interest–and funding–for plant tissue storage centers is difficult to come by. “The case for [physical] storage of DNA is now not as strong, as we can now store those sequences as data instead,” he said. Rather than long term storage of physical samples, DNA could alternatively be immediately extracted, sequenced and stored in digital libraries that require little space and energy for maintenance.

Either way, those behind the initiative feel that in the face of climate change and a potential mass extinction, the need to catalogue diversity is critical and timely. “We’re putting life on ice.” Coddington told the BBC. “These genomes will be preserved forever.”

Harder, however, is ensuring our own preservation.

The problem with storing only genomes is that in the event of a sudden catastrophe that wipes out agriculture, one can’t plant a genome in the ground and expect to feed people.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is secluded, but security is still tight. Here, an armed guard protects the subterranean entrance. Photo: John MCConnico/Associated Press

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is secluded, but security is still tight. Here, an armed guard protects the subterranean entrance. Photo: John MCConnico/Associated Press

The cryogenically frozen samples at the GGI would not be revivable in the event that those species went extinct in the natural environment. Around the world institutions and governments have responded to this quandary by constructing plant libraries that are similar to that of the GGI, with one key difference. These so-called seed banks store the viable embryos of plants that can actually be planted and grown, should the need arise.

“The [GGI’s] genome project is to preserve the genomic history and content of these plants so we can understand how life works.” John Kress, the undersecretary for science at the Smithsonian Institution, told the BBC. On the other hand, he went on, “Seed banks were set up primarily to preserve the seeds of economically important crops, to keep a living bank of tissue with which we can grow these plants again in the future.”

In more explicit terms: these vaults are an insurance policy against agricultural disaster.

But where is the best location to safely squirrel something away in preparation for a cataclysmic doomsday catastrophe?

If one wanted to safely hide a seed from every single plant on planet earth, the answer is Svalbard. More specifically, in a subterranean vault, buried deep in a mountain, enshrouded in permafrost , miles above past, present and predicted sea levels, on the Norwegian Svalbard Island called Longyearbyen. As far as hiding spots go, this is a pretty good one.

Chiseled into the otherworldly Arctic landscape, the door to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault looks like the secret entrance to a nuclear fallout shelter.

Arctic winds whip around the otherworldly entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo: Matthias Heyde

Arctic winds whip around the otherworldly entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo: Matthias Heyde

The Vault is hardly a secret, however. They are soliciting deposits from labs, farmers, the plant industry and conservation groups from around the world. The only way a deposit can be accessed is if all other sources of the seed disappear in nature–in effect, if the plant goes extinct. It’s a way to safeguard future crops, and to provide a potential mixing palate for future researchers to experiment with crafting hybrids that could be resistant to climate conditions in the future.

While the GGI’s mission to preserve plant DNA will enable molecular level physiological understanding of the organisms that make our planet a habitable place, initiatives like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault ensure these plants will actually be around for future generations. As Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust  remarked to National Geographic, “When I walk into the seed vault and go into that cold room I think, ‘Here are 750,000 crop varieties that are not going to become extinct.’ ”


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