You can bank on it

By Bridget Brennan 19 October 2009
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One tenth of the world’s wild plant species are in the vault, including some endangered Aussies.

While scientists are increasingly searching for measures to halt the extinction of the world’s animal population, how do we ensure that plant life survives pressures such as climate change and habitat destruction?

That’s where Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) comes in – it’s the largest plant conservation project in the world.

Founded and led by the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens in 2000, the seed bank today announced that it has already banked 10 per cent of the world’s wild plant species.

“Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank is not a doomsday vault where seeds are stored under lock and key – our mission is to use these seeds to support conservation and improve people’s lives,” said Dr Paul Smith, head of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank partnership.

The 10 per cent was marked by banking the 24,200th species – a pink, wild banana from China called Musa itinerans.

The MSB conserves seeds outside their natural habitat and predominantly focuses on global plant life faced with the threat of extinction or plants of most use to humans in the future. For example, Musa itinerans is part of the diet for wild Asian elephants, and could be useful for breeding new varieties of banana.

“The MSB is storing a total of 6,075 species from Australian collections, all collected in the last eight years,” said Timothy Pearce, International Projects Coordinator.

Timothy said these are duplicated in State-based seed banks in Australia and then sent to the MSB for additional safe storage.

Timothy said one of the more important seeds kept is the shining nematolepis (Nematolepis wilsonii), a small shrub plant which became extinct in the wild when the only known site for the species was completely burned in the February Victorian bushfires.

The MSB also holds the critically endangered feather-leaved banksia (Banksia brownii), from the south-west of WA, collected and duplicated by the Threatened Flora Seed Centre in Perth, WA.

Another of the MSB’s partners is the New South Wales Seedbank at Mount Annan Botanic Garden in Sydney’s south-west, which is run by the Botanic Gardens Trust.

Executive Director of the Botanic Gardens Trust Dr Tim Entwisle said seed banking is one of the most important ways to conserve irreplaceable plant diversity.

“The Millennium Seed Bank has supported our work collecting from the wild and we’re able to duplicate seeds and send them back, so one of the great things [about the collaboration] is they’re able to hold a back-up supply,” said Tim.

Since becoming one of the Millennium Seed Bank global partners in 2003, the NSW Seedbank has banked more than 37 per cent of NSW plant species.

One of the NSW Seedbank’s more precious collections is that of Eucalyptus copulans – only three individual trees remain in the wild and the bank has about 1000 seeds of the species stored.

Tim said they anticipate gathering the next third of NSW’s wild plant seed will be more difficult.

“It’s really hard [to collect seed] once you start to get further afield and into more remote locations, to plants that produce less fruit.”

However, Tim said the NSW Seedbank team is continually researching new ways to preserve species including developing a new technique for storing Australian orchid seeds.

“Some orchid species have tiny, tiny seeds which are very hard to preserve,” Tim said. “So we literally have millions of seeds stored [for these species].”

The next goal for the MSB is to collect and bank a quarter of the world’s plants by 2020 and the coming phase will focus on safeguarding plant diversity in the face of threats to human wellbeing.

Seed collecting expeditions take place all over the world by the MSB international team and global partners.

About 1.6 billion individual seeds from 135 countries are kept in -20ºC temperatures in vaults built to last 500 years. The seeds are checked every 10 years to ensure they’re still alive.

For more information, visit the Kew MSB website.