Royal Botanic Gardens opens one of largest international conservation projects ever

Referred to as “perhaps the most significant conservation initiative ever undertaken” by Sir David Attenborough, the Millennium Seed Bank was set to open the doors to its visitor centre on 26 August.

Currently boasting 300 million seeds from 5,000 species and 122 countries, and promising to house many more, the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), is already the world’s biggest conservation project of wild plants, providing a safe haven for endangered species, especially from dryland areas.

Besides collecting and conserving seeds from hotbeds of indigenous and threatened plants such as Madagascar and Mexico, the MSB will house all 1,400 native seed-bearing UK species, of which more than 300 are threatened with extinction. By 2010, the bank also aims to have saved the seeds of more than 24,000 species by 2010, a tenth of the global seed-bearing flora, with a special focus on conserving the most endangered dryland species.

“We hope to give a massive boost to international conservation, and have had interest from countries not normally known for taking an interest, such as China, who will send botanists over to be trained in seed bank techniques”, MSB spokesperson, Trevor Butler, told edie.

He stressed that the purpose of the bank was really as a last resort for preserving species when all else fails. “We really aim to encourage in situ conservation and cultivation of seeds, but want to act as a reserve for those countries who may not have adequate resources, like reliable power supplies- for example we are working closely with Burkina Faso which wants to conserve its plant life, but lacks the facilities to do so.” Where adequate resources exist the project aims to help other countries to set up their own seed banks, and plans to keep a substantial proportion of all the seeds collected in their countries of origin.

Endangered dryland species are given special emphasis over more wet weather ones because, Butler says, “off-site conservation like seed banking can contribute more where the land is so degraded that the plants will no longer survive than in tropical areas, where weather changes are not such a contributing factor.” Burkina Faso’s plants, in the grip of encroaching desertification, is one such example.

The visitor centre of the £80 million project, situated at the Royal Botanic Gardens’ rural outpost at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex, will display the diversity of the world’s seeds, but the actual bank, where seeds are frozen and dried, will not be officially opened until October.

Dryland species were also selected because of their suitability for the conservation process. Seeds are first dried to increase their life to up to 200 years. Each seed batch is tested for germination in dishes of agar jelly and then stored at temperatures of -20ºC. As a precaution, a back-up seed collection is to be stored in Scotland. The project also intends to carry out research to improve all aspects of seed conservation and to make seeds available for research and species reintroduction into the wild.

Butler also revealed another, possibly invaluable use for the MSB as a resource library for medical researchers. “Ninety percent of medicines are plant-based, so some species could hold the cure for cancer and we don’t know it yet. This is why we got almost £10 million in funding from the Wellcome Trust (the world’s largest medical research charity).”

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