Banking on the future—with seeds!

Global seed banks protect vital genetic material

Created date

November 2nd, 2017
Seeds at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Seeds at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Before the start of World War II, the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad, Russia (now called St. Petersburg), was the world’s largest seed bank. It held over 250,000 samples of seeds, roots, and berries. 

In 1941, when Hitler’s armies invaded Leningrad effectively blockading the entire city, prudent scientists boxed up a large cross-section of the Vavilov Institute’s seeds and hid them in the basement for safekeeping. 

As the Siege of Leningrad dragged on, famine set in and 10,000 people perished. 

Meanwhile, the scientists kept watch over the seeds, which included samples of rice, barley, and corn. Even though the seeds could have sustained them, the scientists did not waver in their desire to protect the seeds.  

By the end of the 28-month siege, nine Russian scientists had died of starvation. 

Those Russian scientists recognized that plant life sustains human life and must be protected at all costs. Today, over 1,400 seed banks carry on the responsibility of protecting one of the world’s most precious resources—our seeds.

Natural disasters like the violent hurricanes that recently decimated Puerto Rico can wipe out entire species of indigenous plants. Outbreaks of disease, like the blight that killed three-quarters of Ireland’s potato crop in 1846, can obliterate vital food sources. And war, especially nuclear war, can annihilate all living things. 

Seed storage

Most seed banks protect a narrow subsection of seeds. For instance, the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan holds 440 different species of vegetable seeds collected from 151 countries. The Hawaii Public Seed Initiative preserves seeds that thrive in Hawaii. Camino Verde in Peru stores over 250 species of Amazonian trees.

Under the right storage conditions, a seed can last for hundreds of years or more. 

For example, a 2,000-year-old Judean date palm plant recovered from Herod the Great’s palace in Israel is the oldest carbon-dated seed known to have grown into a viable plant. And Russian scientists successfully regenerated a 32,000-year-old narrow leaf campion seed found under Siberian permafrost.   

However, keeping seeds in optimum conditions is neither easy nor inexpensive. Like the seeds, seed banks themselves are vulnerable to natural disasters and the impact of war. Only the most well-funded institutions have the resources to truly safeguard their seeds from large-scale threats. To ensure the perpetuity of their holdings, smaller seed banks send duplicates of their seeds to larger seed banks. Think of it as a genetic insurance policy.

Millennium Seed Bank

The largest and most diverse seed bank in the world is the Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex England (a part of the famous Kew Gardens). 

As of February 2017, the Millennium Seed Bank housed 2,200,964,170 seeds from 189 countries in its climate-controlled, nuclear bombproof underground vault. These two billion seeds represent just 13% of the world’s wild plant species. By 2020, the Millennium Seed Bank expects to increase its holdings to 25% of the world’s bankable plants.  

Doomsday vault

About 800 miles from the North Pole, on a small Norwegian island, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Known as “the doomsday vault” because it was built to withstand the ravages of nuclear war, the entrance to Svalbard juts out from the side of a mountain in an otherwise undeveloped area. 

If the bleak concrete structure looks too small to house one of the world’s largest seed collections, it’s because the heart of Svalbard, the actual vault part, is actually tunneled 400 feet into the mountain.  

Svalbard’s design, along with the island’s rocky permafrost and cold climate, makes it an ideal place to store seeds. 

Consisting of three large, climate-controlled, underground vaults, it has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples. Each sample contains an average count of 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds can be stored in the facility.


The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) provides science-based solutions to improve the lives of those who live in dry areas of the world. They maintain a vital seed bank of climate-resilient crop varieties, including barley, fava beans, durum wheat, chickpeas, and lentils. 

“This is a uniquely rich resource for agricultural scientists seeking genes that can be used in international and national breeding programs to develop crop varieties tolerant to climate change, diseases, pests, and harsh weather conditions,” says Dr. Ahmed Amri, the crop scientist who leads the genetic resources unit at ICARDA.

ICARDA established its seed bank in Aleppo, Syria, in 1983. When the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011, the seed bank and its holdings were threatened. To protect its seeds, some of which are extinct in the wild, ICARDA began the arduous task of duplicating its seeds and carefully cataloging them.

Then, seeds representing 80% of the entire collection were packed up and shipped to the Svalbard Vault. 

“The current situation for the globally important gene bank in Syria precisely illustrates the purpose of the seed vaul—to be a safety net for valuable seed collections,” says Svalbard’s coordinator Ola Westengen.

“Safeguarding these genetic materials is a critical mission for ICARDA,” says its director general, Dr. Mahmoud Solh. “We are entrusted with the genetic wealth from some 128 countries—a resource we cannot afford to lose as it ensures long-term public welfare.”