The Doomsday Vault

It is the ultimate fortress, deep inside a frozen mountain about 1,130 kilometers from the North Pole.

The frozen mountains, the isolation and the polar bears provide extra layers of security.

The world’s agricultural heritage is stored in perpetuity at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, dubbed the “Doomsday Vault”.

Tucked away in this giant refrigerated vault in the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway, is the foundation of human food – seeds.

Neatly packed and frozen to withstand hundreds of years of storage and just about any conceivable destructive force known to humans are duplicates of seeds of different crops from all over the world, including 112,807 seeds of different rice types, the largest number for any single crop and its wild relatives.

At an elevation of 130 meters, the Vault is placed well above sea level, far above the point of any projected sea-level rise.

“The technical conditions of the site are virtually perfect. The location inside the mountain increases security and unparalleled insulation properties. The area is geologically stable, humidity levels are low, and it has no measurable radiation inside the mountain,” according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Even if the supply of electricity gets cut off, the frozen mountain and its thick rocks will keep the seeds frozen for a long time, says The Trust, a public-private partnership that raises funds from individual, corporate and government donors to establish an endowment that will provide complete and continuous funding for key crop collections.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) sent its final batch of rice seeds to the Vault in November 2010.

These are duplicates of the rice diversity conserved in IRRI’s International Rice Genebank (IRRI-IRG).

“The IRRI-IRG is earthquake-proof, typhoon-proof, and flood-proof,” explains says Dr. Ruaraidh Hamilton, evolutionary biologist and head of IRRI’s T.T. Chang Genetic Resources Center.

“We have an independent backup power supply to protect against power cuts, and we keep a supply of spares in stock to deal rapidly with equipment failure. We also have a backup collection to the primary collection kept at IRRI that is untouched, but provides immediate backup.”

Since 1980, IRRI has been keeping another backup collection at Fort Collins, Colorado, in the United States. “The United States’ environmental and political risks are different from those in the Philippines,” Hamilton says. “This backup collection in Fort Collins adds to the safety measures being taken at IRRI.”

“The collection kept in Svalbard is our ultimate backup. We cannot conceive of any other measure we could take to make it safer. We cannot think of a more secure system to safeguard this vital resource.”

The Vault was constructed by the Norwegian government as a “service to the world.” It is managed under terms between the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2004 provided the platform through which an international legal framework for conserving and accessing crop diversity, as well as building the Vault, became a reality.

Taming the wild

Although thousands of rice species exist around the world, only a few of these are being cultivated. These cultivated rice varieties are naturally diverse. This diversity, however, is not enough to build better varieties.

It is, in this case, more than in any other, that the extraordinary diversity in rice and its wild relatives becomes crucial.

For decades, scientists have been scouring the unbeaten path of the vast wild rice gene pool to look for genes that allow them to develop rice that provides more yield and is tolerant of stresses such as drought, heat, flooding and saline soil.

Among the major setbacks to food production today is the increasing scarcity of resources. Scientists look more closely at rice, and at every other crop species, to find ways to unlock the many secrets of its gene pool and help it adapt, survive and thrive.

Such is the story of “scuba rice” – the IRRI-bred variety that can withstand being submerged under water for two weeks.

Many years ago, an Indian low-yielding rice variety called FR13A caught the imagination of scientists due to one remarkable trait: flood tolerance. For years, scientists looked for the genes that gave FR13A its flood-resistant characteristic. And, when they found it, they named the gene “SUB1.”

Today, high-yielding varieties that had been given the flood-resistance gene are helping rice farmers cope with frequently flooded rice fields. The wonderful story of the previously unremarkable FR13A highlights why the world should be worried about vanishing plant species and rice varieties.

A nuclear holocaust need not happen to spell doomsday for food sources. Every day, a crop species is lost to typhoons, floods, war, and, sometimes, to simple things like mismanagement or lack of a sustained power supply.

Diversity is the insurance for food security. Every time a species is lost, that diversity narrows, which means that the number of options shrinks as well.

There is something in these vanishing varieties that is priceless: genes. These genes hold the many answers to questions on basic survival and sustaining life on the planet. IRRI

Source: Business Insight>>