The Millennium Seed Bank: saving plants for the future

Cardiospermum halicacabum seeds

Cardiospermum halicacabum seeds. Image by H. Zell (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

To celebrate passing my PhD viva recently my parents gave me an “Adopt a Seed” from the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, Kew. It was a brilliant present to get me and I was really excited when I received my adoption pack in the post last week. You don’t actually get any seeds when you “Adopt a Seed” but you do get a certificate and a photo, as well as updates on the Millennium Seed Bank.

My adopted seed is from Cardiospermum halicacabum, which originates from tropical America (1). A vine growing up to 3 m long, it has inflated seed capsules that give it the name “love in a puff”. The latin name comes from the Greek kardia (heart) and sperma (seed). I am so excited by my present that I have named C.  halicacabum Organism of the Month here at Plant Scientist.

Cardiospermum halicacabum seed pods

Cardiospermum halicacabum seed pods. Image by H. Zell (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

C. halicacabum is used in traditional medicines to treat conditions including gastroenteritis, rheumatism, lumbago, fever, and nervous diseases (2). In recent years, scientific evidence of the plant’s medicinal properties has been emerging. Extracts of C. halicacabum have been found to protect against stomach ulcers, act as painkillers and lower blood pressure in animals (2). Also, C. halicacabum contains flavanoids, many of which are anti-oxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties (2).

More than just introducing me to a plant species I hadn’t heard of before, the money from my parents’ donation will support the work of the Millennium Seed Bank to save conserve plant species at risk from extinction.

What is the Millennium Seed Bank?

The Millennium Seed Bank is based at Wakehurst Place, West Sussex (UK) and stores seed from 10% (around 30,000) of the world’s flowering plant species (3). By 2020 the aim is that it will hold 25%. Kew and its partners send out groups to collect seed samples and then they are classified and stored in the bank.

To maximise the lifespan of the stored seeds, most are dried to 15% relative humidity and then frozen at -20 °C. This can increase the lifespan of the stored seeds by 100 times. However, some seeds would be killed by drying so they need to be treated differently. Therefore, it is important that the properties of each set of seeds are assessed when they arrive at the seed bank to ensure they are stored under the appropriate conditions.

After placing in the seed store, small samples are removed periodically to check that the seeds can still germinate. Some of these may be grown up to produce fresh seed to maintain the stock in the Seed Bank. The lifespan of seeds in storage varies widely. Some may keep only for a few decades, others for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years.

Why is the Millennium Seed Bank important?

We are reliant on plants in our daily lives to provide the oxygen we breathe, building materials, food and even medicines. It is estimated that around 60,000-100,000 plant species are at risk of extinction. The Millennium Seed Bank partners hope to store seeds from as many species as possible, starting with the ones most at risk (due to climate change, habitat destruction etc.) and species that could be the most useful to us in the future.

1. Kew Adopt a Seed: Cardispermum halicacabum http://www.kew.org/support-kew/adopt-a-seed/cardiospermum-halicacabum.htm (retrieved 01/03/14)

2. Cheng HL, Zhang LJ, Liang YH, Hsu YW, Lee IJ, Liaw CC, Hwang SY, Kuo YH. Antiinflammatory and Antioxidant Flavonoids and Phenols from Cardiospermum halicacabum (倒地鈴 Dào Dì Líng). J Tradit Complement Med [serial online] 2013 [cited 2014 Mar 1];3:33-40. Available from: http://www.jtcm.org/text.asp?2013/3/1/33/106541

3. Kew: The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/save-seed-prosper/millennium-seed-bank/index.htm (retrieved 01/03/14)

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One thought on “The Millennium Seed Bank: saving plants for the future

  1. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 07/03/2014 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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