IN THE SEVEN years since the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened, hundreds of thousands of seed samples have gone into its icy tombs. And not one has come out—until now. This week the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas asked for the return of 325 little black boxes of seeds it had stored in the Svalbard vault. For many years, the center housed its own seed bank near Aleppo, Syria. Now, its scientists hope to use the Svalbard samples to regenerate that collection outside of their war-torn home.
Built beneath a mountain on an Arctic island halfway between Norway and the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault currently stores over 800,000 seed samples from 5,100 species of crops and their wild relatives. These seeds are the product of 10,000 years or so of agriculture, history they hold in their genes. The Svalbard vault’s job is to protect them from catastrophe, including nuclear war. It’s often called the “doomsday vault,” conjuring images of the sole survivors of a global disaster jump starting agriculture from scratch with the help of Svalbard’s frozen collection.
But Svalbard is just one part of a global network of seed banks, including the center based in Syria. Each one has a specialty—the Aleppo bank focuses on crops that grow in dry areas—and each one has been sending back-up samples to Svalbard since it opened in 2008. “It’s like a safety deposit box in the bank,” explains Thomas Payne, head of the wheat collection at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center outside of Mexico City.
Meanwhile, the centers do much more than store samples. “It’s their mandate to allow this material to be accessed by scientists and breeders and farmers,” says Brian Lainoff, a spokesperson for Crop Trust, which administers the Svalbard Vault. “A collection is not meant to be a museum.” No, it is meant to help farmers and scientists find the genes they need to improve today’s crops—and breed varieties that might be better able to respond to emerging challenges. For example, the Aleppo center’s repository might contain a gene that makes our most important crops more drought tolerant, an important adaptation to climate change.