A seed bank (also seed banks or seeds bank) stores seeds to preserve genetic diversity; hence it is a type of gene bank. There are many reasons to store seeds. One is to preserve the genes that plant breeders need to increase yield, disease resistance, drought tolerance, nutritional quality, taste, etc. of crops. Another is to forestall loss of genetic diversity in rare or imperiled plant species in an effort to conserve biodiversity ex situ. Many plants that were used centuries ago by humans are used less frequently now; seed banks offer a way to preserve that historical and cultural value. Collections of seeds stored at constant low temperature and low moisture are guarded against loss of genetic resources that are otherwise maintained in situ or in field collections. These alternative "living" collections can be damaged by natural disasters, outbreaks of disease, or war. Seed banks are considered seed libraries, containing valuable information about evolved strategies to combat plant stress, and can be used to create genetically modified versions of existing seeds. The work of seed banks often span decades and even centuries. Most seed banks are publicly funded and seeds are usually available for research that benefits the public.
Seeds are living plants and keeping them viable over the long term requires adjusting storage moisture and temperature appropriately. As they mature on the mother plant, many seeds attain an innate ability to survive drying. Survival of these so-called 'orthodox' seeds can be extended by dry, low temperature storage. The level of dryness and coldness depends mostly on the longevity that is required and the investment in infrastructure that is affordable. Practical guidelines from a US scientist in the 1950s and 1960s, James Harrington, are known as 'Thumb Rules'. The 'Hundreds Rule' guides that the sum of relative humidity and temperature (in Fahrenheit) should be less than 100 for the sample to survive five years. Another rule is that reduction of water content by 1% or temperature by 10 °F (5.6 °C) will double the seed life span. Research from the 1990s showed that there is a limit to the beneficial effect of drying or cooling, so it must not be overdone.
Understanding the effect of water content and temperature on seed longevity, the Food and Agriculture division of the United Nations and a consultancy group called Bioversity International developed a set of standards for international seed banks to preserve seed longevity. The document advocates drying seeds to about 20% relative humidity, sealing seeds in high quality moisture-proof containers, and storing seeds at −20 °C (−4 °F). These conditions are frequently referred to as 'conventional' storage protocols. Seeds from our most important species – corn, wheat, rice, soybean, pea, tomato, broccoli, melon, sunflower, etc. – can be stored in this way. However, there are many species that produce seeds that do not survive the drying or low temperature of conventional storage protocols. These species must be stored cryogenically. Seeds of citrus fruits, coffee, avocado, cocoa, coconut, papaya, oak, walnut and willow are a few examples of species that should be preserved cryogenically.
Like everything, seeds eventually degrade with time. It is hard to predict when seeds lose viability and so most reputable seed banks monitor germination potential during storage. When seed germination percentage decreases below a prescribed amount, the seeds need to be replanted and fresh seeds collected for another round of long-term storage.
Seeds banks may operate in much more primitive conditions if the aim is only to maintain year-by-year seed supplies and lower costs for farmers in a particular area.
One of the greatest challenges for seed banks is selection. Collections must be relevant and that means they must provide useful genetic diversity that is accessible to the public. Collections must also be efficient and that means they mustn't duplicate materials already in collections.
Keeping seeds alive for hundreds of years is the next biggest challenge. Orthodox seeds are amenable to 'conventional' storage protocols but there are many seed types that must be stored using nonconventional methods. Technology for these methods is rapidly advancing; local institutional infrastructure may be lacking.
Some seeds cannot be kept alive in storage and must be regenerated – planted to produce a new quantity of seeds to be stored for another length of time. Parzies et al. 2000 found that this reduced the effective population size and alleles were lost. Parzies' finding has since been taken seriously by banks around the world and has sparked further verification – regeneration is widely recognized to not preserve diversity perfectly.
In-situ conservation of seed-producing plant species is another conservation strategy. In-situ conservation involves the creation of National Parks, National Forests, and National Wildlife Refuges as a way of preserving the natural habitat of the targeted seed-producing organisms. In-situ conservation of agricultural resources is performed on-farm. This also allows the plants to continue to evolve with their environment through natural selection.
An arboretum stores trees by planting them at a protected site.
A less expensive, community-supported seed library can save local genetic material.
The phenomenon of seeds remaining dormant within the soil is well known and documented (Hills and Morris 1992). Detailed information on the role of such "soil seed banks" in northern Ontario, however, is extremely limited, and research is required to determine the species and abundance of seeds in the soil across a range of forest types, as well as to determine the function of the seed bank in post-disturbance vegetation dynamics. Comparison tables of seed density and diversity are presented for the boreal and deciduous forest types and the research that has been conducted is discussed. This review includes detailed discussions of: (1) seed bank dynamics, (2) physiology of seeds in a seed bank, (3) boreal and deciduous forest seed banks, (4) seed bank dynamics and succession, and (5) recommendations for initiating a seed bank study in northern Ontario.
Main article: Oldest viable seed
Seeds may be viable for hundreds and even thousands of years. The oldest carbon-14-dated seed that has grown into a viable plant was a Judean date palm seed about 2,000 years old, recovered from excavations at the palace of Herod the Great in Israel.
In February 2012, Russian scientists announced they had regenerated a narrow leaf campion (Silene stenophylla) from a 32,000-year-old seed. The seed was found in a burrow 124 feet (38 m) under Siberian permafrost along with 800,000 other seeds. Seed tissue was grown in test tubes until it could be transplanted to soil. This exemplifies the long-term viability of DNA under proper conditions.
Conservation efforts such as seed banks are expected to play a greater role as climate change progresses. Seed banks offer communities a source of climate-resilient seeds to withstand changing local climates. As challenges arise from climate change, community based seed banks can improve access to a diverse selection of locally adapted crops while also enhancing indigenous understandings of plant management such as seed selection, treatment, storage, and distribution.
There are about 6 million accessions, or samples of a particular population, stored as seeds in about 1,300 genebanks throughout the world as of 2006. This amount represents a small fraction of the world's biodiversity, and many regions of the world have not been fully explored.
Seed banks can be classified in three main profiles: assitentialist, productivist or preservationist. Many of them can belong to more than one category.
|Objective||Conserve varieties of seeds in case they need to be used in coming harvests||Conserve varieties of seeds to contribute to the improvement of current crops by crossing them with those seeds||Preserve varieties of seeds in case they are destroyed by either man or natural events.|
|Functioning||The bank provides seeds to farmers who lack them||The bank makes its seeds available to produce new crops of agricultural interest from these seeds||The bank does not offer its seeds but it safeguards them|
In Zoroastrian mythology, Ahura Mazda instructed Yima, a legendary king of ancient Persia, to build an underground structure called a Vara to store two seeds from every kind of plant in the known world. The seeds had to come from plant specimens that were free of defects, and the structure itself had to withstand a 300-year apocalyptic winter. Some scholars have suggested that the Norse equivalent of this myth is the underground garden Odainsaker, which was intended to withstand the three-year fimbul winter preceding Ragnarok, to protect the people (and seemingly the plants) that would repopulate the world after this event.
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