By Esther Nakkazi
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), the world’s largest wild plant seed bank and home to some of the planet’s most important natural resources celebrated its 20thanniversary last week.
The seed bank, opened in November 2000 and located at Wakehurst, Kew’s wild botanic garden in Sussex, acts as an ‘insurance policy’ for rare, threatened and useful plants, so that they can be protected for generations to come.
20 years on from its opening, the MSB represents the largest wild seed conservation project in the world, with 2.4 billion seeds from 39,681 species, sourced from 190 countries and territories and represents a global network for biodiversity conservation with over 260 partnerships with institutions from 97 countries and territories across Africa, the Americas, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Partners range from universities and botanic gardens to government institutions and more. Since 2013, RBG Kew’s MSB staff have helped with the development of seven new, international seed banks, where facilities vary from basic to state of the art.
When counting the collections held across the global partnership, the MSB and its partners have helped protect 46,664 species – 16% of the world’s seed-bearing plants. The seeds include plants with traits to withstand climate change and some extinct in the wild.
HRH The Prince of Wales calls it a “gold reserve, a place where this reserve currency, in this case, life itself, is stored.”
“As we face the toughest decade ever for our planet with species disappearing at an alarming rate, the work of the MSB couldn’t be more important – even more so than we could have anticipated 20 years ago. The species safeguarded by the partnership since 2000 offer possibility and hope for future generations,” said Richard Deverell, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
“They could help provide the next major food crop, develop a new cancer drug, or restore degraded habitats destroyed by climate change and deforestation. This would not have been possible without the dedication of our partners around the world, who have worked with us in great harmony to seek out the planet’s most precious plants, and to trust us with a collection for safekeeping here in the UK,” said Deverell.
As the planet faces a biodiversity crisis, with two-fifths of the world’s plants at risk of disappearing, the MSB, along with its global partners are absolutely vital to keeping vulnerable and economically important plants safe.
These important partnerships mean that, wherever possible, every species collected and banked in its native country is also duplicated at the MSB, so that every plant is safely stored in two different locations – the ultimate ‘insurance policy’. The seeds, collected from nine of the world’s biogeographic regions and all 36 of its terrestrial biodiversity hotspots, are frozen in time, stored in air-tight glass containers stacked in huge -20°C freezers.
“The MSB is a truly international project, which brings together thousands of scientists across the world who all share a common love for plants and an ambition to ensure their conservation for future generations,” said Dr. Elinor Breman, senior scientist at RBG Kew’s MSB.
Training and development have been crucial to the seed bank’s success and Kew scientists have delivered training programmes at the MSB and in countries across the globe for more than 2000 people from 61 different countries and territories. Many of these people have gone on to manage seed banks that conserve their national and regional floras.
“It is wonderful to be part of a worldwide conservation project and to be able to safeguard our species from total extinction. We have received so much support from the MSB including funds, training, and guidance so that we can store our flora for the long term. It is a great feeling when you find a species that you have been searching for and can finally be sure that it is safely banked for the future,” said Victoria Wilman, Conservation Coordinator at South African National Biodiversity Institute and partner of the MSB.
Whilst the Norwegian seed bank Svalbard stores seeds of the world’s crops, the MSB banks wild plants, including some of the relatives of our major food crops – these seeds make a vital contribution to global targets such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, in particular goal 2: zero hunger, goal 13: climate action and goal 15: life on land.
The MSB will continue to be at the forefront of preventing biodiversity loss and protecting plants for future generations. The seed bank aims to focus on increasing the genetic diversity, value, and use of its collections. This will include a focus on hypothesis-driven research to help solve global challenges.
“Training will be central to working with partners, as we learn from them and help enable them to conserve their national flora. We will also continue to improve the ways we work, looking at the science underpinning seed banking, and increasing our work in cryopreservation and restoration. We will also be looking to transform our growth for scientific research. We’ll research valuable plant traits, test species’ response to environmental stress, and grow plants for conservation in a range of precisely controlled experimental environments. We are really excited to be moving the MSB Partnership forward,” said Dr. Breman.