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Hope in the vaults at the ‘world’s richest bank’

Special Interest Programme / Partner story

Image © The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Beneath the English countryside in the heart of Sussex lies an incredible bank – but the type that may come to mind as you read this is not the one we mean. In sub-zero chambers, in flood-, bomb-, and radiation-proof vaults, 2.4 billion seeds, collected from around the world, are stored. This is the Millennium Seed Bank, an insurance policy against the global biodiversity crisis that is threatening plant species with extinction.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a research and education organisation that works to understand and protect plants and fungi, for the wellbeing of people and the future of all life on Earth. Kew’s wild botanic garden at Wakehurst is home to the world’s biggest wild plant seed conservation programme, a ‘Noah’s Ark’ to protect our rarest and most threatened plants. Since it opened in 2000, the Millennium Seed Bank has preserved seeds from nearly all the UK’s native plant species and thousands of seeds from around the world.

“With two in five plant species at risk of extinction, it’s a race against time to protect our incredible plant life,” says Dr Elinor Breman, senior research leader at the Millennium Seed Bank. “By storing seeds ex situ (away from their natural habitat), and supporting seed banks in countries around the globe, we’re giving a safe home to some of the world’s most threatened plants.”

Scientists from Kew work with 97 countries to share Kew’s 260 years of botanic expertise, and to encourage the sustainable use of native plants. Together, they collect plant life faced with extinction. Some collections are straightforward. Others require expeditions to mountainous extremes or – as in the case of tiny seeds from the orchid Aerides odorata (measuring in at a dust-like 0.2mm) – careful handling.

The team at Wakehurst make data and collections more accessible to international researchers, training partners in seed conservation and conserving up to 2,000 seed collections a year. Once seeds are collected, they are stored in their native countries where possible, and also sent to the Millennium Seed Bank in the UK – the ultimate insurance. They are dried, cleaned, X-rayed for quality, counted, and logged on Kew’s database, before being stored at -20 degrees Celsius. They are tested for viability every 10 years. In March 2023, the Millennium Seed Bank celebrated reaching 40,000 different species in its collection.

“Conserving seeds is not just about chasing numbers,” says Elinor. “It’s about increasing the genetic diversity of the collections and unlocking their potential to solve some of the biggest challenges we face today, from biodiversity loss to food security to climate change.”

Despite its long-term view, the Millennium Seed Bank is very much a living collection. The team germinates seeds, helps reintroduce plants to the wild, and the collection contributes to global scientific research to find future food and medicines. In 2020, the team at Millennium Seed Bank sent 250 seeds of clover glycine (a rare and threatened pea unique to Australia) to the South Australian Seed Conservation Centre to help restore the plant species following the Cudlee Creek fire.

Oak supports The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew as part of our Special Interest Programme. Oak Foundation supports this grant through our Special Interest Programme which covers a wide range of fields, including environment, health, humanitarian relief, education, and the arts. This programme reflects the Trustees’ interests in making innovative grants. You can find out more about the programme and its strategy by clicking here. To find out more about the Millennium Seed Bank, watch this video below, provided by The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.