A University of Arizona scientist has left a collection of desert plant seeds in a most un-desert-like place.
In February, Margaret Norem, a researcher with the UA department of arboretum affairs, traveled to the noted Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on a remote island off the coast of Norway and just a few hundred miles from the North Pole.
Norem, who has a doctorate in plant sciences, brought with her seeds from 74 desert legume species collected from 10 countries.
The seeds are from the Desert Legume Program, or DELEP, the research arm of Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park in Superior, Ariz., part of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They are among the 3,524 species of legumes from 57 countries that DELEP has been seed banking for the last 22 years.
DELEP is only the third U.S. organization to have seeds accepted by Svalbard, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange, Inc. Svalbard, whose three-year-old vault is tunneled deep into a mountain near the Arctic Circle, currently houses about half a million seed samples, a hedge against biodiversity losses caused by catastrophic events.
Norem said the USDA-ARS National Germplasm System recognized the importance of DELEP several years ago and "started backing up our collection in Fort Collins, Colo., an accomplishment granted to few organizations."
Banking seeds at Fort Collins also was one of the prerequisites for DELEP to gain entry to Svalbard. The other factor was the importance of the DELEP seeds to agriculture. Planting legumes helps farmers replenish their soils and many of them – such as alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) – are widely sown for food and animal feed.
"Species in the Svalbard collection have been used historically by indigenous people for vegetables and flour, as forage, honey, gum and medicine," said Norem. "Native Americans still use palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla), slimjim beans (Phaseolus filiformis) and tepary beans (Phaseolus acutifolius) for vegetables," she said.
Australian Aborgines harvest the pods from Acacia kempeana, or witchetty bush, for flour and as vegetables. Acacia greggii and A. wrightii, both referred to as catclaw acacia for their curved thorns, are grown as a lure for bees to make honey. Scientists are analyzing parts of Australian bardi bush (Acacia victoriae) and cancer bush (Sutherlandia frutescens) from Africa for their role in treating diseases.
Still practiced today, mostly by third-world farmers, seed conservation is likely older than civilization, when early hunter-gatherer groups discovered that new crops could be grown from the seeds saved from a harvest.
The idea behind seed banks is credited to an early twentieth century Russian botanist, Nicolai Vavilov, who collected some 200,000 cultivated plants from around the world before falling victim to a Stalinist purge in 1943.
Scientists collect and store seeds to learn more about breeding, as well as preserving biodiversity. Research on how to optimally store seeds for long periods of time suggests that cold, dry locations are best.
They also talk about the need to "back up" their collections in more than one location. While the vault at Svalbard is as secure as they come, others sometimes are confronted by circumstances beyond their control.
Norem said during Egypt's recent upheaval, looters damaged equipment but spared the collection at the Egyptian Desert Gene Bank, which specialized in medicinal plants and fruit trees. War also has claimed seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another in the Philippines was recently destroyed by a tsunami.
Norem said that because of these and other events, seed banks are encouraged to back up seed in a second seed bank, preferably in a different country. Seed banks generally provide seed to researchers in small amounts free of charge. DELEP frequently ships seed orders to researchers all over the world each year.
Svalbard, on the other hand, stores seeds only on behalf of the depositing institutions, which maintain ownership rights. The Global Seed Vault, as it is officially known, is managed by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, or NordGen.
Norem said that in order to store seeds effectively, they need to be kept at zero degrees Fahrenheit, or -18 Celsius. The Svalbard vault has three chambers at the end of a 100-meter tunnel cut into the permafrost. Each chamber has the capacity to store 1.5 million samples. Only the brushed steel entrance to the facility is visible from the outside. Norem said getting inside during her trip was a challenge, since the door to the vault had frozen shut.
Norem said the one box she brought is dwarfed by the collection inside, but plans are to make more deposits over time. The seeds sent to Svalbard may also reside there for quite a while.
"Different seeds have different viability periods. The viability of the DELEP seeds sent to Svalbard is estimated to be more than 100 years for each species, so our descendants will be the ones responsible for replacing them."