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Millennium Seed Bank.

24,000 rare seeds to be collected by 2010

Hundreds of millions of seeds from the world's most endangered species are to be housed in an underground vault, deep in the English countryside. The Millennium Seed Bank Project will safeguard 24,000 plant species worldwide against extinction and all of the United Kingdom's native wild plants.

This $112 million international conservation project is the biggest of its kind, and the first to attempt plant conservation on a scale matching the current threat of plant extinction. When the seed bank reaches its goal of collecting and conserving 10 percent of the world's seed bearing plants by 2010, the vault will house a broader biodiversity than anywhere else on the planet.

The world's tremendous diversity largely depends on the diversity of plant species. If the plants are lost, a huge proportion of the world's other living organisms will disappear, too.

"Wild plants today are under greater threat of extinction than at any time since the last Ice Age," says Director Peter Crane.

"Seed hunters" are busy around the world, particularly in dryland areas, working to identify and collect seeds to bring them back for safekeeping. The dryland areas are just as important as the rainforests, but receive much less publicity. Burkina Faso, Kenya, Madagascar, Lebanon, South Africa, and the United States have signed agreements forging vital links to enable conservation initiatives to take place.

Western Australia will also participate, by collecting seeds of 1,400 of the state's rarest species for shipment to the seed bank.

"The loss of biodiversity is of enormous concern, particularly in Western Australia, where as many as 450 native plant species are at risk because of encroaching salinity in the species rich Wheatbelt region. In the event a species is lost, then we at least will have a reserve of seed that can be used to re-establish populations in suitable habitat," says Crane.

After shipment to Wakehurst Place, in Sussex, England, the seeds are carefully sorted, cleaned and dried before being frozen to -20 [degrees] Celsius so that they should last for hundreds of years. Though unexciting to look at, staff members describe the seeds as "tiny miracles of packaging, containing all the genetic information for the next generation of plants."

Researchers recently germinated one of the very first seeds it placed into its experimental seed bank back in 1974. After 25 years the Cock's-foot (Dactylis) sprouted on the first attempt -- little green shoots on a petri dish of agar gel.

The conditions inside the seed bank slow down the rate at which plants deteriorate and at which they lose their ability to germinate. Seeds of some plants such as maize (Zea mays) and barley (Hordeum vulgare) can probably last thousands of years in a cold store or a seed bank.

For some wild plants, centuries is probably a more realistic figure, say researchers. This is far longer than most would survive in the wild. It is expected that 80 percent of the species stored at Wakehurst Place will live for at least 200 years.

To find out more about tbe project, visit http://www.rbgkew.org.uk/ seedbank/msb.html
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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Words:524
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