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Millennium Seed Bank Partnership

The purpose of this Partnership is to combat potentially catastrophic threats to human wellbeing by safeguarding wild plant diversity and enabling its sustainable use through global partnership.

Introduction

Plants are essential for human and other animal life on Earth in that they alone capture energy from the sun and convert it into food in the form of their seeds, leaves and roots. Human life is further sustained by the medicines, building materials and fuel that they provide. Plants are central to many ecological processes such as climate regulation (including carbon dioxide absorption), soil fertility and the purification of both water and air.

Plant diversity exists in the form of algae, liverworts, mosses, ferns and seed-bearing species. The latter play the most obvious role in our lives and yet more than 80,000 species of plant (20% of the total) are currently under threat . This threat is largely due to habitat degradation, invasive alien species and over-exploitation; it is likely to be exacerbated by climate change. This threatened diversity is likely to hold the key to solving some of this century’s major challenges in the areas of food security, energy availability, water scarcity, climate change and habitat degradation. Losing it would be catastrophic.

Seed banks offer the opportunity of conserving large amounts of plant diversity, cheaply and effectively at least to the end of this century. This technology has mainly been applied over the past 50 years to conserving the diversity within the relatively few domesticated (crop) species, thereby making it available for varietal improvement. However, over the past two decades, there has been increasing interest in the use of this technology to conserve non-domesticated (wild) species. Such collections are a resource for habitat restoration and afforestation by enabling species to be put back where lost or in creating new plant communities adapted to future environmental conditions. They are also a huge untapped resource for research and new technology, not least in agriculture and horticulture. Collections contain host species for crop pollinators and close relatives of crops, possessing valuable characteristics that can be transferred to varieties with relative ease. The collections may also be the source of new crop species. Precariously, 80% of our plant-based food intake comes from just 12 crop species - eight grain species and four tuber species . With a relentless increase in the human population and climatic uncertainty, diversification of crop species would seem to be a wise precaution.

History

Kew has been banking seed of undomesticated (wild) species since the late 1960s. The seed bank activities moved from Kew to Wakehurst in 1974. By the early 1990s, the banking work concentrated on conservation of species from the UK and from dry (arid and semi-arid) vegetation around the world. The conservation work was supported by a seed research programme. In 1996, the Millennium Seed Bank Project was established, part-funded by the Millennium Commission, to conserve nearly all of the UK species plus 24,200 mainly dryland species at a new storage facility (later called the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building). This project which cost £73m was completed in March 2010, on target and within budget and involved partnerships with organisations in many countries.

Composition

The MSB’s technical network has now been named the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP) and comprises 123 institutions from 54 countries. Its work has been endorsed by policy makers and practitioners both internationally and nationally. The methodologies, partnership model and momentum developed have placed the Partnership firmly in the position of world leader in this increasingly critical technology.

Vision for 2020

We believe that the MSB Partnership is unique in its capacity to collect, conserve and carry out research on a major proportion of the world’s flora. Furthermore, the anticipated effects of climate change and other impacts on plant diversity make it imperative not only that seed banking efforts are accelerated to a scale with real impact, but that they are increasingly channelled towards human use. The breadth of expertise both within Kew’s science departments and within the MSBP provides a powerful basis for a major worldwide initiative to conserve threatened plant diversity in seed banks and to use it for human wellbeing.

By 2020 the vision is that:

  • The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership will be larger than currently (perhaps a 20% increase in numbers of institutes and countries).
  • It will be a fully functioning network with underlying long-term funding and an ability to develop and participate in new, large-scale projects.
  • Kew will continue to stimulate global activity in seed conservation and utilisation without necessarily leading all of the projects the MSBP comprises.
  • The MSBP seed conservation programme will continue to build on the assembled collection of 25% of the world’s seed-bearing species, and utilisation of the collections will be as important as conservation.

At the heart of the MSBP, technical expertise underpinned by world class research will continue to be paramount.

The MSBP purpose and outputs

Purpose: 

To combat potentially catastrophic threats to human wellbeing by safeguarding wild plant diversity and enabling its sustainable use through global partnership.

This purpose translates into three major outputs:

Output 1: Banking of seed collections

High quality seed collections and their associated herbarium specimens, DNA samples, images & data targeted, collected, processed, stored and managed by the network to the most widely accepted international standards, and assured for use by bona fide users under terms agreed with the country of origin.

The key indicator for Output 1 is that MSB-2 will have collected and secured in safe storage 25% (75,000 species) of the world’s seed-bearing plant species (including the collections already held) by 2020.

Output 1 will be pursued through the expanded international network created in MSB-1. We will also explore ways of increasing our role within the UK by offering to duplicate other national collections and to store base collections of forest species (Forestry Commission) and initiate a national collection of ornamentals. A key difference from MSB-1 is the development of a larger and more diverse global network of partners. In particular, we will seek to catalyse seed collection activities in a wide range of plant conservation organisations and networks rather than driving (and paying for) everything ourselves. We will employ novel support and incentive schemes that will pump prime seed collecting and conservation activities in key sectors such as botanic gardens, forestry, horticulture, agriculture and conservation organisations.

Other activities and indicators associated with this output include a set of conservation standards for seed collection, processing, storage, testing & monitoring jointly developed with and adopted by the network partners. This will guarantee that seeds conserved only in-country and not duplicated at the Millennium Seed Bank are kept to the highest standards. This will also enable us to work with a range of highly diverse countries that are particularly sensitive to duplication of their plant genetic resources overseas.

Research aimed at improving the ex situ conservation of collections remains a key activity in the MSBP seed banks. Seed studies will deliver improved processing and storage technologies and tools. Key areas of research will be in: measuring seed longevity across the taxonomic spectrum; development of protocols for the long-term storage of desiccation-intolerant and short-lived seeds; understanding and developing markers for cell death and dormancy; and producing germination protocols. Whilst Kew’s Seed Conservation Department will continue to provide scientific leadership, collaboration will be further developed within the MSBP to strengthen the network’s scientific research capacity.

Output 2: Enabling the use of those collections in (a) afforestation and habitat restoration and (b) food security and livelihoods

Plant material, data and expertise promoted and used by organisations and industries sustainably utilising plant genetic resources and repairing / re-establishing damaged native vegetation.

Output 2a will be pursued through establishing a global lead role in forest biodiversity and a national and international role in habitat restoration relevant to our expertise. Part of this will involve the establishment of the first global long-term seed collection facility for forest species and storage of restoration material which will also benefit Output 1.

Output 2b will be pursued particularly in the area of crop wild relative conservation and research, and expansion of a current programme on under-utilised species. Again, stored collections will also contribute to Output 1. In addition, we will increase the availability of the collections amassed through Output 1 in order to supply research studies in many areas such as crop development, health, bio-fuels, and so on. In turn, finding new uses of plants should increase the imperative for their conservation in the wild.

The MSBP will actively promote the use of its collections. Protocols for in situ propagation and growth will be made widely available. In addition, the data generated by collection use will be promoted and published. Success will be measured by the partnerships and projects developed, the seed collections used, protocols developed and ultimately, the number of species domesticated, hectares restored and species in recovery programmes.

In order to enable collection use we will require new technology. For example, to develop the required methods and tools, studies in the following areas will be necessary:

  • imbibition
  • germination rate and vigour
  • temperature and germination
  • structure, function and germination
  • 'omics' and understanding germination
  • microbial communities and germination/growth
  • seed treatments to enhance quality performance of seeds and seedlings
  • sustainable agriculture
  • seed regeneration and selection
  • seed and seedling chemistry (nutrition/taxonomy)
  • water thresholds for seed and seedling survival and growth
  • methods of introducing plant material to a field site, e.g. ‘artificial seeds’
  • invasive species research

As in Output 1, whilst SCD working closely with other Kew scientists will provide leadership, collaboration will be developed within the MSBP to strengthen the network’s scientific research capacity in this area. Indicators for this area of activity will include methodologies developed and adopted, constraints removed and publications.

Improved collection use will also be achieved by providing technical skills to end users such as farmers and restoration practitioners. Kew will try to understand how our information and skills can have the greatest positive impact on people’s livelihoods such as their food security, nutrition, health, income, water availability and energy needs. Underpinning development in agriculture, forestry, horticulture and habitat restoration will be central to our mission. Appropriate indicators related to these impacts will be developed in consultation with local stakeholders.

Finally, it is intended that SCD and WP staff experience and expertise in the practical issues of restoration will be increased by carrying out restoration activities on-site at Wakehurst Place, and in collaboration with local partners in Southeast England. These activities will also provide an opportunity to demonstrate restoration practices to the visiting public.

Output 3: The sustainability of the MSBP ensured by securing long-term financial support

Output 3 will be pursued by attempting to incorporate seed conservation into larger, long-term funded programmes around the world; by recovering costs for training and technical advisory services, including through the Kew Innovation Unit; and by informing policy makers and advocating the role that seed conservation can play to enable adaptation and innovation in a changing world.

Activities and indicators will relate to long-term financial support for the MSBP from public, corporate and private sources. Whereas in MSB-1 funding from philanthropic sources was linked to seed intakes (Output 1 above), MSB-2 will involve a change of emphasis towards funding linked to enabling the use of seeds (Output 2 above). The reason for this is that our technical skills and knowledge have application in a wide range of activities involving the use of seed - in particular, the human development areas of sustainable livelihoods, food security, afforestation and habitat restoration. Such activities are likely to present us with opportunities to develop strategic partnerships and to be an integral part of large scale land use programmes. In addition, development activities are long term by nature, and will enable us to have a far greater impact on global environmental challenges.

A key difference in the MSB-2 funding model is a shift from small scale livelihoods or restoration programmes driven by the MSB to large scale initiatives driven by other organisations (governments, NGOs and the private sector) in partnership with the MSB.

A good measure of the value to society of the MSBP will be an increase in funding from users of our technical skills. We need to apply our skills and knowledge to the big environmental challenges, such as food security, water scarcity, afforestation, energy and adaptation to climate change. Skills, tools and scientific innovations delivered to a wide range of users in these arenas will also have a positive impact on the long-term financial security of the MSBP institutes. Such usage will help reinforce the value of seed-related technologies.

Given that the MSBP is primarily made up of government institutions, their acceptance of the importance of seed conservation activities can be measured by the quantity of staff both recruited and retained, and by the allocation of core (as opposed to project) funding. This will be monitored through annual reports from partner organisations and the extent to which seed banking appears on higher level Governmental agendas.

Further developing the collective knowledge and resources of Kew’s SCD and other leading partner institutions will be essential for increasing science competitiveness across the MSBP. This will result in an increase in the amount of science output achieved through external, competitive grants. It will ultimately increase the ability both to foster effective science networks and to provide scientific advice. To achieve this, the Partnership will need to develop and maintain a suitable environment for appropriate high quality science that encourages creativity and supports professional development.

Driven by both finance and our green credentials, activities will also focus on improved environmental sustainability of the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building. This should also have the benefit of securing our long-term energy supply as fossil fuel supply becomes ever less certain. Incorporating environmental sustainability into the infrastructures and practices of the MSBP will save money on operational costs and will help to ensure the long-term financial and energy security of the programme. A central aspiration is that ‘all heating and power for the WTMB will be provided by renewable sources as soon as possible and within the next 10 years’. The Wakehurst site is committed to a target of 75 percent renewable energy by 2012.

Significant accomplishments

A global network for seed conservation

  • The MSBP works with over 120 organisations in more than 50 countries
  • Over 600 people worldwide involved
  • Regional networks established in Africa, Europe, Americas, and Australia
  • The Project makes a vital contribution to achieving the targets of the United Nations Global Strategy for Plant Conservation

High quality collections providing options for the future

  • Over 26,000 species banked in the MSB and the country of origin, bringing the total in the MSB to over 31,000 species
  • Quality of collections confirmed by 101,000 germination tests carried out on 22,000 species
  • >11,000 samples of collections supplied by the MSB for use in research and conservation
  • >500 collections used by partners in species reintroduction and habitat restoration projects

Cutting-edge science converted to seed conservation practice

  • 150 scientific papers, 12 books, 75 book chapters and 39 theses produced
  • The effect of climate on seed behaviour better understood
  • A new predictive model for tree seed storage behaviour launched
  • Diagnostic markers for seed ageing and germination identified
  • New information on seed biology generated for more than 15,000 species and made available on the Seed Information Database. Available online.
  • Germination problems solved for over 15,000 species
  • Data analysed for more than 9,200 species resulting in 36 collection guides and conservation assessments for around 6,000 plant species

Transferring knowledge and skills

  • Over 1,500 people trained in seed conservation.
  • Over 50 post-graduate students supported, mostly from overseas
  • Technical support and enhanced facilities for seed conservation provided to collaborators and partners
  • Skills and knowledge made available to local farmers and communities and to professionals working in restoration, in situ conservation and mining

Public awareness and dissemination

  • Celebration of the banking of the MSB’s one billionth seed (an African bamboo) at Downing Street with Gordon Brown in 2007 generates media coverage equivalent to about £600k of advertising revenue
  • Mini Seed Bank kits supplied to 28,000 primary schools in Britain through ‘The Great Plant Hunt’ Darwin bicentenary project in 2009.
  • 7 million people visit the prize-winning ‘Seed Cathedral’ UK Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010.
  • ‘The Last Great Plant Hunt’ book about the Millennium Seed Bank published in 2011.
  • About 60,000 visits to the MSBP website per year
  • Policy advice given at national and international forums

Millennium Seed Bank Partnership launched

  • After wide consultation with partners, the vision, purpose and outputs of the next phase of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is published as the MSB-2 Business Plan (2010-20).
  • Targets for MSB-2 include 25% of orthodox species banked by 2020 and substantial effort directed towards enabling the use of plant diversity for innovation and adaptation in agriculture, horticulture, forestry and habitat restoration.
  • Phase 1 of Project MGU - the Useful Plants Project – successfully delivered in Mexico, South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Mali.
  • The Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change project developed in partnership with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and $50 million secured over 10 years from the Norwegian Government.
  • The Wakehurst Place Landscape Master Plan developed to showcase the work and relevance of the Millennium Seed Bank for sustainable agriculture, horticulture, forestry and restoration.
  • The UK Native Seed Hub launched in August 2011.