by Martin Revis
CONSTRUCTION of a huge underground vault near Haywards Heath in
southern England will ensure a future for thousands of the world's
endangered plant species. Work is well underway on the 80 million
pounds sterling Millennium Seed Bank project.
The vault is being built on land adjoining Kew's sister garden at
Wakehurst Place in Sussex. Here seeds from 25,000 species
representing some 10 per cent of the world's estimated 250,000
flowering plants grown in the wild will be stored in containers at
temperatures up to minus 40 degrees centigrade in a state of
suspended animation for 200 years or more. Thus samples of threatened
species which serve humankind as sources of food, clothing, fuel,
fibres and medicines can be germinated by future generations for
reproduction and use in development projects and scientific research.
A grant of up to 30 million pounds sterling has been awarded from the
national lottery, and further support for the initiative is coming
from corporate and individual donors responding to an appeal launched
by the Prince of Wales and the television naturalist Sir David
Describing it as one of the first conservation projects to meet the
problem of species extinction on an appropriate scale, Sir David said
scientists believed that up to 25 per cent of the world's plants
risked extinction in the next 50 years. Many grew on the fringes of
deserts where a quarter of the world population depended upon them
for food, medicine and shelter.
Kew's existing seed bank at the Wakehurst Place garden is regarded by
botanists as the most comprehensive in the world at present, even
though it represents less than two per cent of global flora. The
decision to expand the bank's role was taken in the light of
Britain's signing at the Rio conference in 1992 of the Convention on
Biological Diversity. It followed a study of the scope of existing
seed banks which were found to be mainly devoted to crop rather than
endangered wild varieties.
Meanwhile Kew has stepped up its continuing collection of world seeds
in partnership with local botanists in Saudi Arabia, Oman, South
Africa, Jordan, Yemen, and Tunisia. Interest has been shown by
Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, which is linked with
Kew through the Institute for Scientific Research which receives
regular lists of seed samples available from the existing bank at
Botanists in Kuwait have participated in compiling the Flora of the
Arabian Peninsula and Socotra. Coordinated by Kew and the Edinburgh
Botanic Gardens, the first of an envisaged six volumes was published
two years ago.
The bank receives daily seed requests from botany-related
organisations in Britain and abroad. About one in three of every
species held has been put to good use in such projects as the search
for a Parkinson's disease cure using vetchlings, identifying
chemicals in a tropical weed Bidens Pilosa for treating ringworm and
reafforestation in Uganda where trees grown from seeds provided are
helping to halt erosion and provide fuel, building materials and
fodder to local people.
Major collecting worldwide over a period of ten years for the new
Millennium Bank will not begin until the year 2000 and capacity is
available. Where possible up to half of the seeds gathered will be
kept by the countries concerned. For those without seed banks the
entire collection can be stored at Wakehurst Place until a bank is
established in the country of origin.
Much of the seed processing and research at the new bank will be
carried out by visiting scientists on the flora of their own
countries. Tourists visiting Wakehurst Place, currently some 250,000
annually, will be able to watch them at work through the central
atrium on the ground above the vault where interactive exhibits will
explain the vital role of seed conservation in combating the
destruction of the natural environment.
The main focus of the collection will be on flora of the world's
tropical dryland areas which support people who depend upon plants
for stabilising and improving soils, as well as the products they
yield. Plants used in hedging, land stabilisation and medicine will
be among those expected to be sought from the Arabian peninsula.
Plants from arid and semi-arid regions produce seeds that are
particularly suited to long-term storage because they are naturally
adapted to germinate after long periods of drought. One of the best
things about the project is that the technology involved in drying,
freezing and storing for future germination is already proven.
Preceding the international collection, volunteers from British
research bodies and conservation organisations are gathering seeds
from all of Britain's 1,400 or so native plants. The completed
collection, the first made by a country to conserve its entire flora,
will be transferred to the new Bank, which is Kew's gift to the
world, thanks to sponsors, including the British people who buy
lottery tickets in the hope of becoming millionaires.
Royal Botanic Gardens
Kew, Richmond, Surrey, United Kingdom, TW9
Telephone: +44 181 332 5000