I work just a couple of blocks from a special kind of bank. It doesn't accept money for deposit, it won't finance a new car, and it wasn't part of the housing bubble. This unusual kind of bank deals mostly in seeds that it preserves, sometimes propagates, and often disperses without charge to anyone who has a research use for unusual strains of crop plants.
Seed genebanks are part of the unseen work that helps increase the chance more people will have enough to eat for supper tonight. The seed vaults are part of a federal-state partnership that preserves a vast number of crop strains, keeping alive genetic diversity that can be quite useful.
"We have over 91,000 samples in our USDA/ARS-SAES genebank," Jinguo Hu said to me recently at Washington State University. Hu is the research leader of the Western Regional Plant Introduction Station.
The seeds at WRPIS are kept in what's called "short term" storage - but that's a relative term. Depending on the plant species, the stored seeds may last up to 50 years.
The temperature of the main storage vault at WSU is just above freezing and has a relative humidity of 30 percent. It feels like a cool tomb, good for preserving the many drawers of seed samples it contains.
There are other seed genebanks around the nation, each specializing in certain types of crops. Some of them came into existence just after World War II.
"The facility at WSU was started in 1947," Hu said.
Among other things, the WSU seed repository holds 16,000 kinds of peas, chickpeas and lentils and 13,000 types of temperate forage legumes like alfalfa.
The goal is to preserve and make available plants that are genetically diverse and can contribute to disease resistance and adaptations to climate change. That's where the rubber meets the road - helping researchers and then farmers continue to bring in good harvests despite changing physical or biological conditions.
"Having seeds in storage also helps prevent a natural catastrophe from wiping out a particular crop plant," Hu said. "The effort is international, with seed banks in Africa and samples we have from them helping to preserve plants that Africa needs for its agricultural conditions, just as our crop plants are preserved for our conditions. "
But even in the quiet and cool storage vault, seed samples age as the years go by. Because they won't last forever, from time to time samples are taken out of the WSU vault and planted. In the fall fresh seeds are harvested and they go back into storage. The WSU facility has two farms that have about 100 acres total under cultivation in this regeneration effort.
There's a USDA/ARS seed storage facility in Fort Collins in which seeds are kept in a vault near zero degrees Fahrenheit or in a frigid bath of liquid nitrogen for the much longer term. Most of WSU's samples are backed up there. There's also now a long term facility in Svalbard, Norway. It's a tunnel and underground storage chambers that were blasted out of the permafrost. The Norwegians simply hold samples as insurance against loss of repositories like the one at WSU.
"Our system here at WSU is quite different from what the Norwegians do," Hu said. "We are designed for ready access and quick dispersal to researchers who want our seeds. Last year we sent out over 30,000 samples to scientific investigators who asked for them."
Some nations no longer permit scientists to collect samples of diverse plants within their borders for research. The ARS Plant Exchange Office has worked hard with these nations to facilitate plant exploration and germplasm exchange to bring in needed genetic resources for crop improvement.
Keeping diverse crop plants alive in the world of industrial agriculture has its complexities. Like other parts of agricultural research and development, the job isn't simple - but the rewards have great potential for all of us who like to eat.
Agricultural research pays dividends each day on what we invest in complex efforts like the one Hu overseas.
You can bank on that.
- Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.