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A day in the life of a Seed Processing Assistant

Angie Bell
13 August 2013

It's just another working day for Angie Bell, one of Kew's Seed Processing Assistants, as she heads down the spiral staircase to the underground vault of the Millennium Seed Bank where she will be banking seeds from Malawi in sub-zero temperatures.

As a Seed Processing Assistant my role includes a range of tasks that are carried out at various times throughout the week.

These tasks include seeing the seed collections from arrival at the Seed Bank, all the way through to banking them in the vault, and beyond. The collections are dried, cleaned, x-rayed, counted, banked and then germination tested. Each day is different as, although the range of tasks is fairly limited, the material we are working on is very varied. This makes it a very exciting role and you are always learning something new!

Spiral staircase down to the vault door at MSB

The spiral staircase leading to the underground vault at the Millennium Seed Bank (Photo: Dave Hill)

First task of the day

This morning my team are working down in the vault preparing some seed collections for storage at -20°C and, where necessary, at -190°C in cryo storage as well. By this point the collections have been cleaned, x-rayed and counted and have spent a month in the main dry room at 15% relative humidity (RH) to ensure they are dry enough for storage. We use a non-destructive Rotronic device to check that the RH of the seeds is at 17% RH or less.

rH meter

A non-destructive Rotronic device is used for checking if seeds are dry enough to be banked

AnAngie Bell using the rotronic RH testing

Today we are banking species from Malawi. Each collection is placed in a suitably sized glass container with an indicator sachet and, using our database, a location in the freezer is allocated and labels for the containers printed.

Angie Bell packaging seeds in to jars

Packaging seeds into jars for storage

Once we have repeated this process for each collection in the batch the next step is dressing up in the big blue suits to go into the freezer and put the containers in/on the relevant drawer and shelves. It is exciting to know that by lunchtime we have added seeds from another 60 species to the 1.9 billion seeds already in storage at the MSB. 

MSB Angie Bell in vault

Here I am ready to put the seeds in the freezer

A different task for the afternoon

It is all change in the afternoon with x-raying to be done. Using our digital x-ray machine we can view the contents of a sample of each seed collection and determine its quality. The machine produces an image that allows us to see full, empty, infested and diseased seeds in detail. Not all collections take a great picture so in those instances we cut open some seeds under a microscope instead. We work through a number of collections until we get to this Leguminosae species; it has a number of infested seeds present, you can even see some maggots! 

Maggot infested Leguminosae XRA

X-ray image of an infested Leguminosae species; the dark areas in the seeds are maggots.

Change of plan as an exciting new batch arrives

While we are working a batch arrives from the USA. An incoming batch takes priority over any other work so we pack away and clean up ready to unpack the new collections. Each batch comes with lots of paperwork and the first job is to check if any chemical treatments have been used or if any quarantine or CITES listed species are present, as these would need to be separated and handled differently.

bags of seeds in the drying room

Bags of seeds just arrived from USA

We unpack the box inside an extraction hood and wear gloves as a precaution. In the box we find 35 seed collections with associated voucher specimens and data sheets. Using the batch list we check that seeds, voucher specimen and data are included for each species. We open and assess each seed collection and also make notes where relevant e.g. if the collection is very small.

Once unpacked the seeds are placed in a crate in the dry room.

The drying room at the Millennium Seed Bank. Air, dried using desiccant-impregnated dryers to 15% relative humidity is fed into the initial dry room which is maintained at 15°C

The vouchers are placed at -20°C for one week prior to processing, the data is entered onto our database, and the International Coordinator for the USA is informed that the batch has arrived safely. By the time we have finished clearing up it is 5pm and time to go home.

 - Angie -


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