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This Agronomist Is Safeguarding the World’s Seeds

Åsmund Asdal coordinates with gene banks to preserve thousands of seed varieties in a safely guarded Nordic vault.

Rebecca Flowers

Rei Watanabe

Åsmund Asdal, a Norwegian biologist and agronomist, is storing seeds to safeguard our future. As the coordinator of operation and management at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which stores seeds from around the world, his job is to coordinate with gene banks interested in sending seed safety duplicates to the Vault for preservation.

Asdal has been fascinated by plants since he was a boy. “I started to cultivate my own vegetables and herbs quite early,” he told me. He decided to study plant science at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (called the Norwegian Agricultural University at the time) in Ås. While completing his thesis on plant genetic diversity in the mid-1980s, Asdal made his first connections to the national Norwegian Genetic Resource Center, and in 2015, began working at the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen).

NordGen is responsible for conserving genetic resources and diversity, which will be important in future years for the challenges that come with climate change and a growing population. For example, as Senior Plant Scientist Jan Svensson says in one of NordGen’s videos, preserving seeds allows researchers to cross a disease-resistant plant with a high-yield plant. Farmers can then produce a huge amount of produce if disease strikes.

NordGen is also responsible for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which has been under Asdal’s care since 2015 (he was previously the manager for the Norwegian national program for plant genetic resources at NordGen). Asdal is responsible for establishing connections with gene banks and depositing seeds in the vault, as well as disseminating information about the project to the public.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault “offers a safe place for the depositing duplicates of seed samples that are conserved in gene banks all over the world,” said Asdal. “So, if any gene bank loses their seeds, they can get the copies back from Svalbard and start re-establishing a lost seed collection.”

Gene banks can lose their seeds for a variety of reasons, from war to flooding to fires. Many banks have already lost seeds, so the Svalbard Global Seed Vault offers free-of-charge storage for any seed bank, a program funded by the Norwegian government.

Asdal feels this work is important because scientists need the genetic diversity stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to develop new plant varieties. “We need better plant varieties to produce more food for a growing population,” Asdal said, noting the importance of the vault in combating new plant diseases.

According to Asdal's database as of December 19, there are 890,886 sample pouches stored in the Vault, each of which contains between 300 and 500 seeds, which puts the total number of seeds at around a half-billion. The seeds encompassed about 5,000 different species, sourced from 73 different gene banks. “This means that we have seeds from more or less all countries in the world,” Asdal said.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault is especially ideal for guarding safety duplicates of seeds due to its structure and location. The Vault is essentially a thick sandstone triangle surrounded by snowdrifts in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

“Seeds need to be frozen,” Asdal said. Svalbard provides a location in the mountains with plenty of permafrost and a temperature of about -3°C. The Vault’s artificial cooling system brings the temperature down to -18°C, the ideal temperature for storing dry seeds. The Vault is also remote, and therefore a “safe place, quite far away from conflicts,” Asdal told me. There are high levels of security and alarm systems, both to prevent people breaking in and to monitor temperatures changes.

In the interest of ensuring the preservation of these seeds over time, Asdal and NordGen are conducting research to investigate whether the seeds degenerate, despite storage at an ideal temperature. They have been undergoing a 100 year trial that began in 1987, in which they test the germination of 15 species every five years.

Asdal’s team recently tested the seeds from the 30 year mark, and is in the process of producing a report on them. “I can say that many of the species have almost the same germination ability as they had 30 years ago when the seeds were put in the vault, but a couple of species have also experienced a decline in germination over these 30 years,” Asdal said. More detailed conclusions will be forthcoming in his paper.

Going forward, Asdal hopes to continue expanding the collection of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as well as the number of their gene bank partners. Asdal said they are still in the process of creating agreements with many gene banks, some of which have only started recently. “It is quite a simple project, a valuable and very important project,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that 890,886 seeds are stored at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. That is actually the number of seed pouches, not individual seeds. Motherboard regrets the error.

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