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Seed banks, sowing biodiversity’s future


“Biological diversity is a widely under-appreciated resource that is essential for human existence and has a crucial role to play in sustainable development and in the eradication of poverty. Biodiversity provides millions of people with livelihoods, helps to ensure food security, and is a rich source of both traditional medicines and modern pharmaceuticals.” That is how UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan defined biodiversity at the International Day for Biological Diversity in 2003.

Humans intimately depend on biological capital, and without it, it would have been impossible to reach the level of prosperity that we currently enjoy. Plants have graced us with food, medicine,wood, and energy, but during the last century, human pressures and rapid industrial development have severely affected the natural heritage. The extinction of new species brings the irreversible loss of unique plants directly related to human development and prosperity.

Each plant has a genetic warehouse and biochemical information; the extinction of just one species can cause the loss of very important information for the human’s well-being. In addition biodiversity as the variety of all forms of life on earth is required for the recycling of essential elements such as oxygen, to reduce pollution and acts as a buffer against variations in weather and climate.

More than ever, it is becoming essential to look for new developments which would use our biological capital in a sustainable and equitable way, while of course, at the same time, preserving it. Bearing in mind that 50% of Europe’s endemic species are in danger of extinction, avoiding their loss is capital.

Seed banks such as the ones coordinated by ENSCONET have an important role to play here, by ensuring that precious plant diversity is available for later use by us and future generations in habitat restoration, sustainable development, or recovery programme.

There are several purposes for which to store seeds. Seeds of wild species are stored for plant conservation (called ex situ ) because the species they come from are endemic, are being at risk of extinction or because they are from geographic areas in process of deterioration. Crop wild relatives stored constitute a pool of genetic diversity that can be used in plant improvement for agricultural purposes. Seeds are also stored for research purposes.

The majority of world plants produce seeds that can maintained their viability after being dried and frozen. In those cases, after collecting and proper determination, seeds are cleaned and dehydrated to a 5%- moisture content. The seeds are then encapsulated in hermetically sealed flasks and finally stored either in deep freezers at -20 oC or in liquid nitrogen. It is important, before storing the seeds, to identify their origin (species and geographical origin) so that they can be properly classified. A dried plant specimen is usually use for that purpose.

Seeds that do not bear being dried need specific research to improve their viability and increase their longevity when stored. During storage, germination tests are performed to ensure seeds viability and make sure that species re-introduction would be possible in the case of extinction.

Conservation work is basic for preserving seeds. As the loss of biodiversity is a common problem which goes beyond frontiers, cooperation between countries (for example in Europe), and setting up laws and policies is necessary in order to alleviate the problem and work together in preserving natural heritage.

Projects such as ENSCONET, which purpose is to establish a common European network working in seed conservation,go towards this goal.

Amparo Amblar | alfa
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