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Beneath the English Countryside: The Plant Ark of Noah


The Millennium Seed Bank houses about 40,000 plant species from all over the world.

Within bomb-proof frozen cellars beneath the English countryside, hides a treasure trove of 40,000 species of wild plant seeds from around the world, many of which are in danger of disappearing.

The world’s largest seed bank, located in the quiet countryside south of London, is in a race against time because two out of five plant species are threatened with extinction, scientists said.

Britain’s David Attenborough, a prominent environmental figure of global repute, has called the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) “perhaps the most important conservation initiative of all”.

“The goal is to preserve wild species through seed, to prevent extinction of these species in the long term,” explained John Dickey, the project’s senior research leader.

The 70-year-old has been involved with MSB since its inception in the late 1990s and the opening of its current home in 2000 for the Millennium Celebration.

A total of 2.5 billion seeds are stored at the MSB in Wakehurst, 35 miles (56 kilometers) outside London, and in a branch of the capital’s Kew Gardens botanical gardens.

They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and belong to 40,020 different species from 190 countries.

Roughly 20 percent of the world’s flora is preserved at Wakehurst, with priority given to plants threatened, particularly by climate change, and endemic plants that can only be found in one geographic area.

Plants that have a societal function, such as medicinal or economic uses, also have their place.

The facility is an offshoot of the Kew Gardens botanical gardens

The facility is an offshoot of the Kew Gardens botanical gardens.

Not rocket science

“Plant species are threatened with extinction for a number of reasons but mainly through land use change and, increasingly, through climate change,” Dickey said.

He added that “some plants will adapt. Others will not. At least they are here and not non-existent anymore.”

Wakehurst receives new seeds from around the world every week and then begins the process of saving them.

The process is “based on technology that’s already been used for crop types,” Dickey said.

“This isn’t rocket science. Dehydrate it, freeze it. It’s just chemistry,” he added, explaining that once seeds are frozen, they can be stored for decades, maybe centuries.

Dickey’s team of about 20 different researchers and volunteers are on public display in their glass-fronted laboratory.

Lucy Taylor works on Albizia polyphylla seeds that arrived from Madagascar.

Priority is given to stocking threatened plants

Priority is given to stocking threatened plants.

“Madagascar is an interesting place for us. Because it was separate from Africa, there is a unique flora. There is also a lot of pressure on the land,” she said.

One of its functions is to separate the empty seeds from the rest.

Iran regrets

“A lot of them could be empty or infested with bugs or some kind of disease, so it’s important for us to clean them as much as possible,” Taylor explained.

“We want to have the best possible range of quality but also space in our bank vault is limited.”

Seeds are X-rayed for diseases, and each is given its own ID, with its name, country of origin, and date of arrival at MSB.

The seeds are then stored in glass jars before the scientists — outfitted like Arctic explorers — take them to minus 20 degrees (minus four degrees Fahrenheit) underground cellars, built to withstand flooding, bombing and radiation.

  • New seeds arrive every week

    New seeds arrive every week.

  • The seeds are first cleaned and then stored in glass containers before being cataloged and stored

    The seeds are first cleaned and then stored in glass containers before being cataloged and stored.

The largest group of seeds is from the orchid family.

But there are also rare plants, such as the world’s smallest water lily and Deschampsia Antarctica, also known as Antarctic hair grass, one of two flowering plants native to the frozen continent.

The Confessional Iron Bank, which receives public funding and donations, has partnerships with 90 countries.

Some, like Indonesia, refuse to share their seeds with migratory soaring birds, but keep them on their lands and take responsibility for their conservation.

But others seem elusive. One of Dickie’s few regrets is that he has nothing to do with Iran.

© 2023 AFP

the quote: Noah’s Ark Plants Under the English Countryside (2023, May 19) Retrieved May 19, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-05-noah-ark-beneath-english-countryside.html

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