Under the permafrost on an Arctic island, the Norwegian government has a “Doomsday Vault” that can store up to 4.5-million different seed samples to preserve crops in the event of a catastrophe.
Following the example of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a team of researchers from various universities, including UCSB, have proposed a new seed bank that promotes biodiversity and allows nature to run the breeding process. By taking samples of species growing in the wild — especially those that thrive under difficult conditions — the seed bank would allow scientists to measure the effect of natural selection and evolution on plants. Those involved with the new prototype have dubbed the idea the “Resurrection Initiative.”
Natural seed banks occur when seeds from plants are preserved in sediment or ice layers, which essentially become living fossils. Scientists can extract the seeds and examine the evolutionary track of those species by “resurrecting” the plants and analyzing them. However, the seeds may be composed differently and the samples may get mixed in the ground. The ‘Resurrection Initiative’ plans to produce a more complete sample by setting up an evolutionary seed bank.
UCSB professor Susan Mazer from the Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology Dept. said the project has the potential to allow researchers to learn more about genetic deficiencies in plants. Currently, plant species lacking genetic diversity are more prone to diseases and pandemics, a threat Mazer said the “Resurrection Initiative” could address.
According to professor Steven Franks of Fordham University, the proposed seed bank would mainly examine plant evolution.
“In contrast to existing seed banks, which exist primarily for conservation, this collection would be for research that would allow a greater understanding of evolution,” Franks said in a press release.
Mazer said the typical seed bank model collects samples from agricultural crop populations where there is very little genetic diversity. While proven to be effective, Mazer said the method lacks breadth.
“[It is] a fantastic start,” Mazer said. “But a typical sample of an agricultural crop population has only a tiny amount of genetic diversity [compared to] a wild crop.”
According to Mazer, wild samples are useful to evolutionary biologists who are searching for genetic adaptations caused by global climate change.
“The value of an agricultural seed bank is to preserve species in case of an agricultural emergency,” Mazer said. “The value of an evolutionary seed bank would not primarily be to secure the diversity of wild species, but to provide a resource we could investigate at regular intervals… to see how the genetic diversity has changed and to see what traits or attributes have changed due to natural selection.”
Additionally, Mazer said adaptations in wild plants could reflect changes in the natural environment.
“For example, due to global warming, species may flower early or tolerate drought better,” Mazer said. “Perhaps [they would] evolve the ability to self-pollinate instead of relying on pollinators.”
In order to track these changes, the “Resurrection Initiative” calls for the establishment of a baseline, or initial sample, of wild plants that would then be compared to wild plant samples collected every decade. Differences between original plants and subsequent evolved species could then be investigated and compared.