The Importance of Seed Banks in an Uncertain Future

Feb 12, 2019

In this month's installment of Field Notes, Susan Knight discusses the importance of seedbanks - in the past and in the future - for the survival of our food crops in an uncertain future.

One of my work projects is learning and writing about wild rice, and I got to thinking about preserving wild rice seed into the future. This led me back to an old Field Notes story about Soviet genetics.  In this earlier Field Notes, I told the story of Lysenko, a Soviet pseudo-scientist who rejected the emerging science of genetics, and instead insisted that organisms could hold onto traits they had acquired and pass them on to future generations.  Lysenko and his proponents claimed they could turn rye into wheat and wheat in barley, and that weeds could spontaneously turn into food grains. This is patently ridiculous, but because Joseph Stalin liked the ideas, all scientists in opposition were imprisoned or killed.  I told this story as a cautionary tale of politics interfering with science.  There were many tragedies in this story, but probably none so sad as that of Soviet scientist Nikolay Vavilov.

Vavilov was described by other scientists as “a person of inexhaustible energy and unbelievable efficiency”. He wanted to improve farm productivity and eliminate recurring famines. He supported the Mendelian theory that genes are passed on unchanged. He focused on finding centers of the greatest genetic variety, and collected germplasm, mostly seeds but sometimes roots, to preserve the maximum genetic diversity for the future.  He launched worldwide plant exploration expeditions to collect seeds of crop varieties and their wild ancestors. He worked at breakneck speed, commenting “Time is short, and there is so much to do. One must hurry”. He traveled the world, but also focused on crops grown in the Soviet Union, trying to collect and assemble all the useful germplasm of all the important crops in the Soviet Union to improve the national plant breeding effort. Vavilov helped create an international seed bank in Leningrad of 200,000 varieties of 2500 species of food crops. The seeds and roots were stored in Vavilov’s institute in Leningrad, a city formerly, and now again known at St. Petersburg. 

Vavilov’s belief in genetic variation and the importance of saving it is where he ran straight up against Lysenko, and by extension, with Stalin. Vavilov was arrested but refused to repudiate his beliefs, saying “We shall go into the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions.” In a horrific irony, Vavilov, working so hard to preserve plant material to prevent future famines, was sentenced to a Stalinist prison, where he starved to death in 1943.

The germplasm Vavilov and others worked so hard to collect and preserve was safely hidden until Hitler’s three-year blockade of Leningrad, which was still going on in 1943 at the time of Vavilov’s death. 700,000 residents of Leningrad starved to death during the siege. Scientists in Vavilov’s institute barricaded themselves in with the hidden collection of seeds and managed to preserve it. These heroic scientists refused to eat the seeds themselves, viewing them as an irreplaceable means for feeding humanity after the blockade. Tragically, these scientists also starved to death.

Vavilov’s precious seed bank survived the war, but since Lysenko was still the darling of Stalin, the seed bank was unappreciated and became degraded and largely unusable.  Still, a modern-day Soviet geneticist wrote that 80% of all the Soviet Union’s cultivated areas are sown with varieties derived from Vavilov’s collection.

Today, agronomists still find it critically important to preserve seeds and plant germplasm to guard against losses of genetic variation in the face of an uncertain future. Many seeds and germplasm are held at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in a remote Arctic Archipelago, about 800 miles from the North Pole. Seeds are kept frozen and dry deep within the vault, which is in an abandoned coal mine deep in permafrost.  Even if power to the vault fails, the seeds will stay dry and below freezing for over a hundred years. The vault functions like a safe deposit box in a bank. The vault is like the bank, and the seeds are like the contents of individual safe deposit boxes that are owned and controlled by the contributing seed providers.

So how does this have anything to do with wild rice? Along with some other seeds, wild rice is not viable if dried, and so would never be a candidate for the Svalbard Seed Vault. True, it is not a staple world crop, but given how important wild rice is to our friends and neighbors in Wisconsin and Minnesota, I hope we can find a way to preserve all its genetic complexities for the future. And let us always remember the brave men and women who gave their lives helping protect seeds and crops for humanity’s future.

For Field Notes, this is Susan Knight of UW-Madison’s Trout Lake Station.