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Wired: Svalbard’s icy vault welcomes first tree seeds

Wired.co.uk reports on the deposit of tree seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in February 2015.

The Global Seed Vault on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Ocean has added the first forest tree samples to its collection — Norway spruce and Scots pine.

The vault was established in 2008, and stores more than 840,000 varieties of seed from across the world — just over half of the total thought to exist. The first submissions were mainly food crops, but the facility has expanded since into a wider range of plants.

The aim of the facility is to preserve genetic data in the event of natural or human disasters. While that’s often portrayed in the media to mean major catastrophes, it’s expected that it’ll be more commonly accessed for reasons of mismanagement, accidents, funding cuts and equipment failures in the 1,750 seed banks in the rest of the world, which occur on a much more regular basis. It’ll also allow genetic changes to be studied over long time periods.

To make sure that the samples are preserved, seeds in the facility are heat-sealed in four-ply packets to exclude moisture and stored at -18C. Svalbard was chosen to site the vault because it lacks tectonic activity and the soil is permanently frozen all year round, aiding cooling. It’s 130 metres above sea level, so it’ll remain dry even in an extreme climate change scenario where the Earth’s ice caps melt in their entirety.

There are no permanent staff on-site, but there are multiple security systems to prevent malevolent human interference. It’s estimated that the contents of the vault will be preserved for hundreds of years — possibly thousands in the case of some species.

While the Norwegian government owns and operates the facility, the seeds remain the property of the organisations that contribute the samples. About five percent are owned by the Centre for Genetic Resources of the Netherlands, for example. Inside already are 32 varieties of Irish potato, and a number of types of chilli pepper.

Those have now been joined by the aforementioned Norway spruce and Scots pine samples, as well as soy bean, barley, lentil, sorghum and wheat samples from the US Department of Agriculture, and almost 2,500 rice samples from AfricaRice. Fourteen species of wild tomatoes, including five that originate from the Galapagos Islands, have also been added.

“Africa is bearing the brunt of all of the global challenges that threaten food security, such as political instability, climate change and population increase,” said Marie-Noelle Ndjiondjop, head of AfricaRice’s Genetic Resources Unit. “We must not lose the ability to develop the crops that will help us meet and overcome these challenges.”

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