On almost every continent, seed banks hold the valuable material breeders need to improve crops critical to the world's food supply. But in some developing countries, deteriorating buildings and lack of funding put these resources at great risk. Now a major grant will help the banks save the seeds.
Running a seed bank is more complicated that just storing seeds in drawers. Not only must caretakers maintain proper temperature and humidity, but every so often they must regenerate, plant, and harvest the seed to keep it viable. And some plants, such as yams, can't be stored as seeds at all, but must be maintained in culture or in fields. In many countries, lean budgets put the collections at risk.
Today, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization set up to improve the plight of seed banks, announced that it has received $30 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and $7.5 million from the Norwegian government to improve the situation. About half the grant will go to the trust's endowment, and $22.5 million will be spent to conserve collections of seeds of 21 crops relied on by poor farmers, such as taro and cassava. The funds will help seed banks improve their facilities and regenerate the seed. As that happens, seeds will be sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a back-up facility in Norway (Science, 23 June 2006, p. 1730).
The grant will also fund research to make it easier to conserve yam and other plants that currently can't be stored as seed. Another goal is to create a global database of the seeds by improving and integrating each bank's catalog system, with a target of including 4 million accessions--representing 85% of agricultural plant diversity--in the next 5 years. "It would really be a new world and fantastic for plant breeders," says Cary Fowler, director of the trust.