Seed bank

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Seedbank at the USDA Western Regional Plant Introduction Station Seedbank.jpg
Seedbank at the USDA Western Regional Plant Introduction Station

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.


Storage conditions and regeneration

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 [1] 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. [2]

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. [3]


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. [4] [5] Parzies et al. 2000 found that this reduced the effective population size and alleles were lost. [4] [5] 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. [4] [5]


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. [6]

The phenomenon of seeds remaining dormant within the soil is well known and documented (Hills and Morris 1992). [7] 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.


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. [8]

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. [9]

Climate change

Conservation efforts such as seed banks are expected to play a greater role as climate change progresses. [10] Seed banks offer communities a source of climate-resilient seeds to withstand changing local climates. [11] 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. [12]


Plant tissue cultures being grown at a USDA seed bank, the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation Plant tissue cultures, National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, USDA.jpg
Plant tissue cultures being grown at a USDA seed bank, the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation

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. [13] This amount represents a small fraction of the world's biodiversity, and many regions of the world have not been fully explored.

Seed banks classification

Seed banks can be classified in three main profiles: assitentialist, productivist or preservationist. n practice, many seed banks have a combination of these three main types, and they may have different priorities depending on the context and goals of the seed bank. [26]

  1. Assistentialist seed banks: These seed banks primarily aim to support the needs of local communities and small-scale farmers. They focus on providing seed samples that are well-suited to local conditions and are easy to grow and maintain. They prioritize seed samples that have high yield potential, are pest and disease resistant, and can be grown with minimal inputs.
  2. Productivist seed banks: These seed banks primarily aim to support large-scale agricultural production and commercial farming. They focus on providing seed samples that have high yield potential, are pest and disease resistant, and can be grown with minimal inputs. They prioritize seed samples that are well-suited to large-scale mechanized farming and can be grown in large quantities.
  3. Preservationist seed banks: These seed banks primarily aim to conserve the genetic diversity of wild and domesticated plant species. They focus on preserving the genetic diversity of plant species, and make seed samples available for research and breeding programs. They prioritize seed samples that are rare, endangered, or have unique genetic characteristics.
Seed banks classification by profile
ObjectiveConserve varieties of seeds in case they need to be used in coming harvestsConserve varieties of seeds to contribute to the improvement of current crops by crossing them with those seedsPreserve varieties of seeds in case they are destroyed by either man or natural events.
FunctioningThe bank provides seeds to farmers who lack themThe bank makes its seeds available to produce new crops of agricultural interest from these seedsThe bank does not offer its seeds but it safeguards them

Early concepts

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. [27] 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. [28]

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Ex situ</i> conservation Preservation of plants or animals outside their natural habitats

Ex situ conservation literally means, "off-site conservation". It is the process of protecting an endangered species, variety or breed, of plant or animal outside its natural habitat; for example, by removing part of the population from a threatened habitat and placing it in a new location, an artificial environment which is similar to the natural habitat of the respective animal and within the care of humans, example are zoological parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The degree to which humans control or modify the natural dynamics of the managed population varies widely, and this may include alteration of living environments, reproductive patterns, access to resources, and protection from predation and mortality. Ex situ management can occur within or outside a species' natural geographic range. Individuals maintained ex situ exist outside an ecological niche. This means that they are not under the same selection pressures as wild populations, and they may undergo artificial selection if maintained ex situ for multiple generations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Agricultural biodiversity</span>

Agricultural biodiversity or agrobiodiversity is a subset of general biodiversity pertaining to agriculture. It can be defined as "the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels that sustain the ecosystem structures, functions and processes in and around production systems, and that provide food and non-food agricultural products.” It is managed by farmers, pastoralists, fishers and forest dwellers, agrobiodiversity provides stability, adaptability and resilience and constitutes a key element of the livelihood strategies of rural communities throughout the world. Agrobiodiversity is central to sustainable food systems and sustainable diets. The use of agricultural biodiversity can contribute to food security, nutrition security, and livelihood security, and it is critical for climate adaptation and climate mitigation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Germplasm</span>

Germplasm are genetic resources such as seeds, tissues, and DNA sequences that are maintained for the purpose of animal and plant breeding, conservation efforts, agriculture, and other research uses. These resources may take the form of seed collections stored in seed banks, trees growing in nurseries, animal breeding lines maintained in animal breeding programs or gene banks. Germplasm collections can range from collections of wild species to elite, domesticated breeding lines that have undergone extensive human selection. Germplasm collection is important for the maintenance of biological diversity, food security, and conservation efforts.

A knowledge ark is a collection of knowledge preserved in such a way that future generations would have access to said knowledge if all other copies of it were lost.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Svalbard Global Seed Vault</span> Globally accessible seed bank on Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure backup facility for the world's crop diversity on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago. The Seed Vault provides long-term storage of duplicates of seeds conserved in genebanks around the world. This provides security of the world's food supply against the loss of seeds in genebanks due to mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts, war, sabotage, disease and natural disasters. The Seed Vault is managed under terms spelled out in a tripartite agreement among the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust, and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gene bank</span> Facility that preserves genetic material

Gene banks are a type of biorepository that preserves genetic material. For plants, this is done by in vitro storage, freezing cuttings from the plant, or stocking the seeds. For animals, this is done by the freezing of sperm and eggs in zoological freezers until further need. With corals, fragments are taken and stored in water tanks under controlled conditions. Genetic material in a 'gene bank' is preserved in a variety of ways, such as freezing at -196° Celsius in liquid nitrogen, being placed in artificial ecosystems, and put in controlled nutrient mediums.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Crop Trust</span>

The Crop Trust, officially known as the Global Crop Diversity Trust, is an international nonprofit organization with a secretariat in Bonn, Germany. Its mission is to conserve and make available the world's crop diversity for food security.

Seed Savers Exchange, or SSE, is a non-profit organization based near Decorah, Iowa, that preserves heirloom plant varieties through regeneration, distribution and seed exchange. It is one of the largest nongovernmental seedbanks in the United States. The mission of SSE is to preserve the world’s diverse but endangered garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, and educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity. Since 1975, Seed Savers has produced an annual yearbook of members’ seed offerings, as well as multiple editions of The Garden Seed Inventory, and The Fruit, Nut and Berry Inventory. SSE also publishes Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners. The nonprofit has sold seeds to about 600 retail stores in the United States and Canada.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cary Fowler</span>

Morgan Carrington "Cary" Fowler Jr. is an American agriculturalist and the former executive director of the Crop Trust, currently serving as a senior advisor to the trust. On May 5 2022, Dr. Fowler joined the U.S. Department of State as U.S. Special Envoy for Global Food Security.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Millennium Seed Bank Partnership</span>

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, formerly known as the Millennium Seed Bank Project, is the largest ex situ plant conservation programme in the world coordinated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. After being awarded a Millennium Commission grant in 1995, the project commenced in 1996, and is now housed in the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building situated in the grounds of Wakehurst Place, West Sussex. Its purpose is to provide an "insurance policy" against the extinction of plants in the wild by storing seeds for future use. The storage facilities consist of large underground frozen vaults preserving the world's largest wild-plant seedbank or collection of seeds from wild species. The project had been started by Dr Peter Thompson and run by Paul Smith after the departure of Roger Smith. Roger Smith was awarded the OBE in 2000 in the Queen's New Year Honours for services to the Project.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Crop wild relative</span> Wild plant closely related to a domesticated plant

A crop wild relative (CWR) is a wild plant closely related to a domesticated plant. It may be a wild ancestor of the domesticated (cultivated) plant or another closely related taxon.

Crop diversity or crop biodiversity is the variety and variability of crops, plants used in agriculture, including their genetic and phenotypic characteristics. It is a subset of and a specific element of agricultural biodiversity. Over the past 50 years, there has been a major decline in two components of crop diversity; genetic diversity within each crop and the number of species commonly grown.

The World Vegetable Center (WorldVeg), previously known as the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC), is an international, nonprofit institute for vegetable research and development. It was founded in 1971 in Shanhua, southern Taiwan, by the Asian Development Bank, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United States and South Vietnam.

The U.S. National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) is a network of institutions and agencies (federal, state and private) led by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the effort to conserve and facilitate the use of the genetic diversity of agriculturally important plants and their wild relatives.

Sally Norton is an Australian plant scientist and national Leader of the Australian Grains Genebank, Agriculture Victoria, in Horsham. Norton has over 20 years' experience in the collection, characterisation and management of plant genetic resources in seedbanks, specialising in crop wild relatives. She is working to establish the Australian Grains Genebank as the national focal point for access to grains germplasm for use in Australia's research and grain crop breeding programs.

The Nordic Genetic Resource Center is a plant, farm animal and forest conservation, gene resource guardian, and sustainable use organization under and primarily financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers, and is headquartered in Alnarp, near Malmö, in southern Sweden. NordGen's primary mission is "securing the broad diversity of genetic resources linked to food and agriculture" through "conservation and sustainable use, solid documentation and information work and international agreements".

The National Centre for Plant Genetic Resources: Polish Genebank (NCPGR) is a research unit in the Plant Breeding and Acclimatization Institute – National Research Institute. NCPGR is the coordinator and implementer of the National Crop Plant Genetic Resources Protection Programme. The Programme aims to protect the biodiversity of crop plants endangered by genetic erosion in Poland, and is funded by the Ministry of Agriculture. The main tasks include collection of crop and wild plant populations and varieties threatened by genetic erosion, description and evaluation of collected materials, and preservation of their viability and genetic purity. The Programme is an implementation of provisions laid down in international treaties ratified by Poland:

The Australian Grains Genebank (AGG) is a national center for storing genetic material for plant breeding and research. The Genebank is in a collaboration with the Australian Seed Bank Partnership on an Australian Crop Wild Relatives project. It is located at Grains Innovation Park, in Horsham, Victoria, Australia.

Plant genetic resources describe the variability within plants that comes from human and natural selection over millennia. Their intrinsic value mainly concerns agricultural crops.

Genetic resources means genetic material of actual or potential value where genetic material means any material of plant, animal, microbial or other origin containing functional units of heredity... Genetic resources thus refer to the part of genetic diversity that has or could have practical use, such as in plant breeding. The term was introduced by Otto Frankel and Erna Bennett for a technical conference on the exploration, utilization and conservation of plant genetic resources, organized by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Biological Program (IBP), held in Rome, Italy, 18–26 September 1967.


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Further reading