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Travelling to Tbilisi: seed-banking in a biodiversity hotspot

In a country where many plants managed to survive the ice-age, seed banking technology is protecting them from extinction and today’s threats.

Georgia’s National Botanical Gardens (NBGG) and Institute of Botany (IoB) collect hundreds of thousands of seeds from over 150 important plant species every year. However, conserving seeds is challenging in a relatively humid country where temperatures can vary from -30°C in winter to 40°C in summer.

Kew’s Caucasus coordinator, Emma Seal, and Conservation Partnership Coordinator, Elinor Breman, visited both partners in Tbilisi in November to assess their newly installed dry room which will transform their capacity for long-term banking. The room is set at 15°C and 15% relative humidity. This significantly reduces seed moisture content, thereby slowing ageing and enabling them to remain viable long into the future.

Elinor Bremen and Emma Seal delivering training on dry room use to NBG staff (Credit: NBGG)

Since 2006, RBG Kew has supported IoB and NBGG staff in seed conservation training, new project development and the provision of vital equipment. Together, they have conserved the seeds of over 1,900 plant species, helping to protect genetic diversity as well as the livelihoods of local communities reliant on these species for food, medicine and income.

Acantholimon armenum, a regional endemic also known as ‘prickly thrift’ (Credit: RBG Kew)

The Caucasus are one of the most diverse and endangered biodiversity hotspots in the world, home to around 6,400 plant species, over 25% of which are endemic. One such species is the Colchic hazelnut (Corylus colchica), categorised as ‘vulnerable’ and known for being highly frost-tolerant and nutritious. The IoB are researching the potential for these characteristics to help future food production in our rapidly changing climate.

Vulnerable and endemic, Corylus colchica is an economically important species in Georgia (Credit IoB Georgia)

During the visit, plans were set in place for future projects to collect, dry and bank fruit and nut species, endemic medicinal plants and economically-important flora.