Royal Society of Biology logo Millennium Seed Bank Partnership Conserving the world's seeds Heritage Lottery Fund logo Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council logo

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The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSB) is the world’s largest ex situ plant conservation programme, conserving plants outside their natural environment. The Bank is saving the seeds of thousands of plant species in case they become extinct in their natural habitats.

Globally, between 60,000 and 100,000 plant species are at risk of extinction. On current trends, one plant species will become extinct every day for the next 50 years. The MSB is focusing on the plants that are most at risk, and that may be most useful for the future.

It opened at Wakehurst in West Sussex in 2000 and is part of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. So far, more than 13% of the world’s wild plant species have been banked. This is more than 34,000 plant species and almost two million seeds. Such a huge task has been achieved though a network of partners working across 80 countries.

The seed bank has a target to save 25% of the world’s bankable species by 2020 (a total of 75,000 species). The focus is on plants and regions that are at most risk from human activities and the impacts of climate change. Species are prioritised from mountain, arid (dry), coastal and island environments, as these are the most vulnerable to climate change.

Seeds are collected from many remote areas on special expeditions. Once it is confirmed that there are enough good quality seeds in an area to be collected, seed is gathered from randomly selected plants. The teams never take more than 20% of the available seed, to help protect the plant’s future survival.

Once back at the MSB, the seeds are unpacked in a closed laboratory. They are identified and information is recorded on the seed bank database. The seeds are dried, packed into containers and then put into cold rooms for long-term storage at temperatures of minus 20 degrees centigrade. Thousands of seed samples are stored in a large underground vault, which also has facilities for research and seed processing.

The seeds are used in a variety of ways, from investigating samples for research purposes, to using stored seeds to support habitat restoration. For example, seed is being stored from priority tree species on mining sites in Madagascar, in case they need to be replaced in the future when mining stops.

The seeds we conserve are used for research into food, agriculture, forestry, health and ecosystem repair

Millennium Seed Bank.

As well as food, plants provide oxygen in the air we breathe, clean water, fuel, building materials, fibres and resins. They help to fight climate change by regulating temperatures and absorbing carbon dioxide. More than 30,000 species of plants are edible but not many of these are currently used for agriculture. As climate change takes effect, different plants may need to be grown for food and new varieties will need to be developed, such as drought-resistant crops and energy-rich plants that can be used as biofuels.

Plants also have a role in medicine. Worldwide, 70% of people rely on traditional plant remedies for medicine. Only around one fifth of all plant species have so far been screened for their medicinal use, so the unscreened species could hold the cures for many diseases.

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is helping to ensure that these resources will be available to future generations.