The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard
The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard NordGen

Ever wondered how long seeds in fact live? Well, researchers in the Arctic are taking on the mantle to find out exactly that. As of September, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has become the site of this intriguing quest. 6 global research institutions and genebanks including the Hyderabad-based ICRISAT have contributed seed specimens for the research.

This experiment, which will carry on for the next 100 years, will observe the conditions and how long seeds may be preserved. 

ICRISAT joins seed experiment in the Arctic

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics based in Hyderabad will be joining in the fascinating research on seed longevity. The ICRISAT will be providing four of the 13 crops that will be tested through the research. The other participating institutions are -- The National Rice Seed Storage Laboratory for Genetic Resources (NRSSL) in Thailand, Instituto Nacional de Investigação Agrária, (INIAV) in Portugal, Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (Embrapa) in Brazil, The Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Germany and Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) in Sweden. 

100-year experiment
100-year experiment begins at Svalbard Global Seed Vault.ICRISAT

In a genebank, many frozen seeds that are well-dried can be preserved for a long time. Exactly, how long 'after germination under optimal conditions' however, isn't quite well-researched. What's more, it has been assumed that many seeds can survive centuries and some more than thousands of years at length. 

Speaking about the experiment, and ICRISAT's role, "ICRISAT will bring seeds of chickpea, groundnut, pearl millet and pigeon pea to the experiment during 2022-23. The seeds will be tested initially before being put in the vault for storage at -18 degree Celsius. They will be taken out for testing once every decade during the course of the next 100 years to determine longevity," said Dr Vania Azevedo, Head of ICRISAT's R S Paroda Genebank.

The seeds being collected from the six participating research institutes are: 

  • Rice – The National Rice Seed Storage Laboratory for Genetic Resources (NRSSL) in Thailand
  • Groundnut, chickpea, pearl millet and pigeonpea – ICRISAT in India
  • Maize – Instituto Nacional de Investigação Agrária, (INIAV) in Portugal
  • Soybean – Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (Embrapa) in Brazil
  • Barley, pea, wheat, lettuce and Brassica oleracea (of the cabbage family) – The Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Germany
  • Timothy – Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) in Sweden.

So far, the first test sets deposited in the vault for the experiment on Thursday were-- barley, pea, wheat and lettuce produced by the German genebank IPK in Gatersleben. Over the next three years, these six institutions will be placing seeds of other crops into the vault for the experiment.

100-year experiment
100-year experiment on seed longevity.NordGen

How this experiment will help is that a lot of data on the preservation of seeds would be valuable to future generations. Moreover, it'll help preserve species for regeneration as genetic resources. This will considerably help the world's genebanks. While many genebanks are as old as five decades and have accumulated some knowledge, the ICRISAT said in its release. However, it's far from complete and that is the gap this experiment will try to fill. 

"This experiment will provide future generations with valuable information about seed viability and more precise knowledge of how often seeds need to be regenerated," said Dr Asmund Asdal, Seed Vault Coordinator at NordGen, the genebank responsible for managing the project.

Dr Azevedo adds, "In this experiment, all the variables that cannot be measured or recorded during the normal course of genebank operations will be measured using advanced techniques when learning about seed longevity. Seeds from multiple harvest years of different crops and different varieties produced under varying conditions in diverse geographies are subject to extensive testing for germination and gene expression once a decade over a very long time. This kind of testing hasn't been attempted before."

How the experiment will pan out

While the experiment on seed longevity is surely a long one, there are numerous variables in the process that can barely be pre-empted.

ICRISAT told IBTimes about how data will be recorded and how the research will be conducted in 100 years, "A sample of a few hundred seeds will be tested before being put into the vault and then taken out every 10 years for testing including germination. The RNA will also be extracted for analysis. The RNA analysis can help compare genetic differences over baseline and over time. The operations involved before the experimental seeds enter the vault are production of seeds in the field, packaging and shipping to Svalbard Seed Vault. The seeds are stored in the vault under – 18 degree Celsius. ICRISAT will be taking seeds from its genebank to the vault. These seeds in the genebank will have to be regenerated i.e. planted and harvested because we want to take freshly produced seeds to the experiment in order to correctly understand longevity. The planting and harvesting will happen in 2022-23."

When asked about the challenges in conducting the experiment, the organisation says, "The conduct of the experiment itself is not a challenge as genebanks have been depositing their seed accessions in the vault for about a decade now. However, the experiment is expected to produce information to better manage one of the biggest challenges to conservation – maintaining genetic purity and diversity at the same time. Conserving a seed over long term means that it has to be taken out periodically and regenerated (sowing, growing and harvesting) so that only viable seeds are conserved. With every cycle of regeneration, however, some divergence from the parent seed is likely. To keep such divergence to a minimum, scientists plant a certain number of seeds per accession. Despite this, natural selection can bring about undesirable changes when regenerating that over a period of time can lower genetic purity, result in loss of some rare alleles and thus affect diversity."

Svalbard Global Seed Vault
The Svalbard Global Seed VaultNordGen

They add, "Knowing just how long seed of a particular crop is desirably viable will help in determining how many regenerations are needed and thus help improve conservation. This can also increase the cost-effectiveness of conservation."

Speaking about how the Svalbard Global Seed Vault's location in the Arctic will benefit the experiment ICRISAT says, "Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic. The cold is needed for long-term conservation. The Global Seed Vault is the only facility of its kind and it works with genebanks from across the world, and already conserves the world's crop resources. It is best poised to conduct the experiment." 

It'll be exciting to see the outcomes of this ambitious experiment over the next hundred years.