Tag Archives: seeds

The global seed vault is getting its first deposit of the year

If you ever want to rebuild the world from a post-apocalyptic situation, you may want to take the time to visit the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago. That’s where researchers have built a facility that acts as a secure backup facility for the world’s crop diversity.

It rarely opens, but when it does, it’s a big deal. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed bank located on an Arctic mountainside, has now received new 100,000 seed deposits from 10 genebanks from around the world, including seeds of crops that weren’t previously represented. This brings the total holding of the vault to 1.1 million seed samples.

Located halfway between the North Pole and mainland Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault only opens up only a few times a year to limit the exposure of the seeds to the outside world. The vault, established over 12 years ago, serves as a backup storage facility, storing duplicates of seeds samples from the world’s crop collections.

“We are always excited to receive new species into the Seed Vault,” Sandra Borch, Minister of Agriculture and Food of Norway, said in a statement.  “The future of the world’s food and nutrition security depends not only on the genetic diversity we have within the major food crops—but also on the diversity of crops that small-scale farmers rely on.”

A group of 10 genebanks made the first deposit of the year in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, including seeds of crop species that weren’t previously represented. Among these are species from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Germany. IPK’s deposit includes samples of wheat from the 1920s.

The largest deposit of over 6,000 seed samples was made by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) from its genebank in Morocco. This brings the total holding in the Seed Vault to more than 100,000 seed samples, which is close to what it was before ICARDA withdrew seeds to reestablish its own genebank collection.

“The Seed Vault underpins the global system of genebanks charged with making sure the crop diversity we need to adapt our agriculture is safe and available,” Stefan Schmitz, Crop Trust Executive Director, the organization behind the vault, said in a statement. “Should anything happen to one of these genebanks, we know the Seed Vault holds copies of these invaluable materials.

The importance of the seed vault

There are over 1,700 genebanks around the world that hold collections of food crops for safekeeping. But many are vulnerable to natural catastrophes, war, lack of funding, or poor management. This is where the seed vault comes in.

The permafrost and the thick rock where it’s located ensure that the seeds remain frozen even without power. The vault is built to be as resilient as possible, with seeds being kept at −18 °C (−0.4 °F) and at low-oxygen levels — a combination that reduces metabolic activity and delays seed aging.

The vault can store up to 4.5 million varieties of crops. Each variety contains on average 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds can be stored. At the moment there are 1.1 million seed samples, ranging from African and Asian food staples such as rice, wheat, and sorghum to South American varieties of lettuce, barley, and potato.

The seeds are stored and sealed in three-ply foil packages, which are sealed inside boxes and stored on shelves. The vault is kept at a temperature of -18ºC. This ensures low metabolic activity that keeps the seeds viable for a long period of time. The vault remained mostly closed from 2016 to 2020 due to upgrades after its entrance was flooded.

Decades of research have shown that the diversity of plants grown for food has significantly diminished since the 20th century, making the work done at the vault very important. Hundreds of organizations are working to conserve crop diversity, worried about a future with industrial monocultures that can’t cope with the climate crisis.

Scientists make the smallest-ever man-made flying devices inspired by propeller seeds

A microflier next to an ant for scale. Credit: Northwestern University.

There’s something mesmerizing about the elegant whirling motion of the maple’s leaf propeller seed spinning through the air before it gently touches the ground. This is not just some romantic autumn scenery, though. Although trees are static they can disperse over relatively vast distances on their own by evolving these sort of sophisticated, aerodynamic seeds. Inspired by nature, scientists have now borrowed the maple seed design, as well as others, to give microchips wings.

These amazing microfliers are about the size of a grain of sand, but despite their tiny size they pack enough electronics and sensors to monitor their surroundings, store data, and communicate wirelessly. And thanks to their design, these fidget-spinner-like devices can fly like a helicopter without a motor or engine.

The Northwestern University team of engineers behind this remarkable project believes a swarm of these microfliers could prove highly useful for an array of applications, whether it’s scouring the atmosphere for pathogens or particle pollution.

“We have long-standing research interests in ultra-miniaturized electronics and sensors for the human body – as an extension, we began to think about uses of adapted versions of those devices for monitoring the environment.  A key challenge in that context is in distributing large, wireless collections of such devices over large areas and designing them in a way to maximize their interactions with the environment (e.g. the atmosphere for pathogens and/or particulate pollution).  Active flying capabilities might be interesting in this context, but passive schemes like those used by plants and trees, as bioinspired ideas, are particularly attractive due to simplicity,” John A. Rogers, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery at Northwestern, told ZME Science.

Better than nature’s design

A 3D microflier (right) compared to a tristellateia seed in free fall. Credit: Northwestern University.

Propeller seeds employed by some tree species evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Over time, the most adapted seed designs that interacted with wind patterns for the longest possible period of time took over and became the norm.

When you encounter a design that has been tried and tested over millions of years, it’s easy to see why Rogers and colleagues jumped onboard. But they didn’t merely copy these designs — they tweaked and built upon them, eventually surpassing nature.

After studying the aerodynamics of numerous types of plant seeds, the researchers were most impressed by the star-shaped seeds of the tristellateia plant, a flowering vine. Using this design as a starting point, the engineers devised various microflier versions, including one with three wings whose shape and angles are similar to the tristellateia seed.

A close-up of a 3D microflier, outfitted with a coil antenna and UV sensors. Credit: Northwestern University.

These designs were polished even further after they went through a battery of tests using both computational methods and empirical measurements of airflow. The end result is a super-advanced microflier that is capable of falling with more stable trajectories and a slower velocity than similar propelled seeds found in nature.

“Forming the 3D collection of wings in ways and with materials that naturally integrate with millimeter-scale electronic systems was a key challenge.  We were quite pleased to find that we could not only make and optimize the structures, but that their performance could exceed that of naturally occurring seeds with sizes that are far smaller,” Rogers proudly recounted.

To demonstrate the abilities of these microfliers, the Northwestern scientists embedded sensors, a power source that harvests energy from the wind, memory storage, and an antenna for wireless transfer of data to third-party devices — all within a one-millimeter frame, wings included.

Some microfliers were fitted with sensors that detect particle pollution in the air, others had pH sensors that are useful for monitoring water quality or photodetectors that measure different wavelengths of sunlight.

“Seeds” that monitor the environment

A swarm of these could be dropped from a high or low altitude, depending on how large the surface area of interest for monitoring is. “We envision areas that might range from a fraction of a square mile to several square miles,” Rogers said. They could be used routinely to monitor the environment or during emergency situations, such as a chemical spill to quickly assess the damage.

Unlike traditional monitoring instruments, having hundreds or thousands of these microfliers covering an area could provide much more granular data with a very high spatial density. On the other hand, that sounds like a lot of litter — but the scientists thought ahead, though.

When deployed in the field, the researchers plan on using microfliers made from degradable polymers and dissolvable integrated circuits that safely dissolve in water. So essentially, after the tiny devices finish their mission, they should seamlessly disintegrate into the environment.

This is just the beginning though. Just like nature fostered multiple designs adapted for various environments and purposes, so do the researchers plan on working on new microflier versions.

“We are working on sensors for biological species – pathogens, bacteria, etc – and for heavy metal contaminants.  Advanced wireless electronics, power supply strategies and so on will also be important.  As a longer-term goal, active, flapping fliers could be interesting.  We are also exploring different types of seed designs – parachuters, flutterers, gliders, etc – and we are now demonstrating environmentally degradable electronic sensors as payloads,” Rogers said. 

Americans are receiving mysterious bags of Chinese seeds in the post

More than a dozen types of seeds have been sent from China to people across the United States, with no indication as to why. Most species were identified as innocuous herbs but officials have advised not to plant them due to fears of them being invasive or harmful to humans.

Credit Flickr Elis Alves (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

So far, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has identified 14 kinds of seeds, including flowering plants like morning glory, hibiscus, and roses, vegetables such as cabbage and herbs like mint, sage, rosemary, and lavender. All 50 states have issued warnings about the packages.

“We don’t have any evidence indicating this is something other than a ‘brushing scam’ where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales,” USDA said in a statement. “USDA is currently collecting seed packages from recipients and will test their contents.”

The seeds have so far arrived in white packages with Chinese lettering and the words “China Post,” with some labeled as jewelry, according to images shared in social media. USDA is now collecting the packages and will test their contents to see if they could damage agriculture or the environment.

Anyone who receives such packages with seeds from China shouldn’t plant them, the USDA said in its statement, asking for citizens to contact their state plant regulatory official and keep hold of the seeds and packaging, including the mailing label, until they receive further instruction.

Robin Pruisner, an official at the Department of Agriculture in Iowa, told Reuters that the seeds could be coated with something, possibly insecticide or fungicide. “I’ve had people describe to me that the seeds are coated with something purple. I haven’t had it in my hands yet, but it sounds an awful lot like seed treatment,” she said

Meanwhile, Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, warned the packages could have harmful invasive species or be otherwise unsafe, according to a press release. Invasive species are organisms not native to a certain region that can cause the destruction of native crops and introduce diseases.

“An invasive plant species might not sound threatening, but these small invaders could destroy Texas agriculture,” Miller said in the release. The Texas Department of Agriculture “has been working closely with USDA to analyze these unknown seeds so we can protect Texas residents.”

Lori Culley from Utah told Fox News she found two small packages in her mailbox that appeared to contain earrings. “I opened them up and they were seeds,” Culley said. “Obviously they’re not jewelry.” Culley said she posted about the strange incident on Facebook, and “at least 40 people” reached out to her saying something similar happened to them.

Lotus seeds.

German researchers release open-source tomato and wheat seeds to boost research

Breeders from the Göttingen University and Dottenfelderhof agricultural school in Bad Vilbel, Germany, have released new varieties of tomato and wheat seeds. The catch? They’re free for anyone to use, ever, as long as the products of their work remain free to use. In essence, these are open-source seeds.

Lotus seeds.

Image credits Nam Nguyen.

I think we’ve all, at one point or another, had to bump heads with the sprawling world of intelectual property and copyright licensing. That being said, I don’t think many of us imagined that licensing is a problem farmers and plant breeders also have to face — but they do. Feeling that this practice has gone beyond doing good and is actually stifling progress (both scientifically and morally in areas where food insecurity is still high,) German scientists have created new varieties of tomato and wheat plants, whose seeds are now freely available for use under an open-source license.

The move follows similar initiatives to share plant material in India and the United States, but it’s the first to actually extend the legal framework to all future descendants of the varieties.

So why would you make seeds open source? Well, the idea is that scientists and breeders can experiment with these seeds to improve the varieties or create new ones altogether without having to worry about the legal department suing them back into the stone age. And in that respect, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. According to Johannes Kotschi, an agricultural scientist who helped write the license last year, the license “says that you can use the seed in multiple ways but you are not allowed to put a plant variety protection or patent on this seed and all the successive developments of this seed.” Kotschi manages OpenSourceSeeds for the nonprofit Agrecol in Marburg, Germany, which announced the tomato and wheat licensing in Berlin back in April.

The open source seeds have had a very positive reception. Since their announcement, other universities, nonprofits, as well as organic breeders have expressed an interest in releasing open-source licenses for their hop, potato, and tomato varieties, and Kotschi’s tomato seeds have been in great demand.

Why open-source

For the majority of human history, seeds have, obviously, been open-source. Without any system in place to enforce copyright claim or to penalize copyright infringements in place, farmers could use and improve on any variety of plant to suit his needs. This freedom allowed for the crops we know today — those with ample yields, drought- and pest-resistance, better taste and growing times, so on. Or they just got lucky.

But in the 1930s the United States began applying patent law to plants and soon everyone was doing it — so farmers and breeders couldn’t claim a variety as their own, and even risked legal action for working with a claimed crop. The problem further deepened as a sleuth of additional measures including patents and a special intellectual property system for crops called “plant variety protection” made it into legislature. As companies merge, these patents and plant intellectual property become increasingly concentrated to an ever-smaller number of legal entities.

Some progress was done on plant variety protection, with international agreements allowing an exception from the intellectual property for research and breeding. But there’s no such system in place for patents, and scientists aren’t allowed to use patented plants for breeding or research purposes.

The Geman open-source seeds solve these problems by allowing anyone to use the varieties as long as any derivatives (offspring) remain in the common, public domain. However, there is some concern that a complete shift to an open-source system would harm innovation, as commercial breeders (who are the main source of new varieties) and universities wouldn’t be able to cash in royalties off their work. As with most areas of life, balance is key to solving the issue.

For now, governments will likely keep an eye on how the seeds impact existing systems.

Morning glory.

Morning glory seeds are hardy enough to survive in space, experiment reveals

Morning glory (family Convolvulaceae) seeds can survive through ridiculously high doses of UV radiation, a new study found, making them ideally suited for future colonies on high-UV planets such as Mars. They’re so good at it that these seeds might even survive the trip between planets unprotected — lending more confidence to the theory of panspermia.

Morning glory.

Give or take one decade ago, astronauts onboard the ISS placed about 2000 tobacco plant (genus Nicotiana) and arabidopsis (Arabidopsis thaliana) seeds on the outside of the station, then went about their business for 558 and 682 days. The plan was to see what effects long-term exposure to UV light, cosmic radiation, and the extreme temperature fluctuations out there would have on the tiny seeds. Since any of these factors on its own is lethal to most life as we know it, the general expectation was that they would die off.

Rad resistant

But at the end of the experiment in 2009, when the seeds were brought back down to Earth and planted, 20% of them germinated and grew into normal, healthy-looking plants. Which was surprising, to say the least. Now, 10 years after the experiment, an international team of researchers is trying to understand why.

“Seeds are ideally suited to storing life,” says David Tepfer, an emeritus plant biologist at the Palace of Versailles Research Center of the National Institute for Agronomic Research in France.

Together with Sydney Leach, an emeritus physicist at Paris-Meudon Observatory in France, Tepfer took a closer look at the DNA of some of these space-traveling seeds that didn’t make it to the germination trials. They were looking for a short section of genetic code which had been spliced into the seeds’ genome before their space journey. This bit of code was meant to act as an overall indicator of the exposed DNA’s level of damage, and the team found degradation both on it and the seeds’ genome. It’s possible that under the harsh conditions of space, distinct bits of the DNA were chemically fused like a stack of CDs melted together. The information stored in the DNA couldn’t be read afterward, inactivating the whole strand.

Still, one issue remained unaddressed. Given the inherent space constraints and transportation difficulties, the duo had to work with small seeds for the space tests “but small seeds are generally not capable of long-term survival in the soil,” the team writes. To see what the limitations of larger seeds were, the team performed a follow-up lab experiment with three types of seeds — tobacco and arabidopsis as a control sample and morning glory seeds “for their larger size, tougher seed coats, and longevity in the soil.” They then blasted these seeds with a huge amount of radiation — roughly 6 million times as much UV as is typically used to purge drinking water of any pathogens. The tobacco and arabidopsis seeds didn’t make it, but morning glory seeds germinated normally after the exposure.

Pack some sunscreen

The team writes that their survival likely comes down to a protective layer coating the morning glory seeds, which contains flavonoids (compounds commonly found in wine and tea that act as natural sunscreens) and insulates them from the brunt of UV radiation.

Barricaded behind these flavonoids, seeds could slumber their way from one planet to the next and, assuming they don’t burn on reentry or land on a planet where everything is toxic and awful for them, take root and jumpstart life around the Universe — a process known as panspermia. Tepfer also says it’s worth investigating if feeding animals a diet rich in flavonoids can lend them resistance to UV, potentially keeping them safe on interplanetary travels.

Feeding animals a high-flavonoid diet might confer resistance to UV light and make them better suited for interplanetary travel, Tepfer suggests. “They might become more ultraviolet-resistant,” he says. “Red wine or green tea, anyone?”

The paper “Survival and DNA Damage in Plant Seeds Exposed for 558 and 682 Days outside the International Space Station” has been published in the journal Astrobiology.


svalbard vault

Syrian researchers withdraw seeds from the Arctic ‘Doomsday’ Vault

svalbard vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Deep in the Arctic, nestled inside an icy island lies one of humanity’s backup plan: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Open in 2008, the center houses seeds from virtually all the plants on the planet be them wild, domesticated or genetically modified. In case of a global calamity of any kind (nuclear war *cough), these seeds would be put to good use if a species is faced with extinction or research is required on such seeds. This is precisely why the first withdrawal request from the vault was made by Syrian researchers.

While there’s no nuclear war in Syria, things are pretty rough over there. The researchers at International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) had to move their work from their head quarters in Aleppo, Syria to Lebanon. The problem is that all the seeds which the researchers use are located in Aleppo, and while these are supposedly safe and in cold storage, the vicinity is ravaged by war and too dangerous. To continue their work, the Syrian Researchers asked the vault to return 130 of the 325 boxes that they dropped off containing drought-resistant crop seeds, including wheat, barley, and grasses. This means 116,000 out of a total of 860,000 stored at the Svalbard Vault.

Though Norway owns the global seed bank, the first of its kind, other countries can store seeds in it and remove them as needed. The genes in the seeds may someday be needed to adapt crops to endure climate change, droughts, blights, and other potential catastrophes.  Luckily, the vault is replenished constantly and the withdrawal shouldn’t cause any vulnerability. “Protecting the world’s biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” spokesperson Brian Lainoff said.

via Science Alert.

Moringa seeds. Image: Penn State

These seeds purify water by killing bacteria. Just add them along with sand in water

Since the time of the ancient Egyptians, people have using the grounded seeds of the Moringa oleifera tree to clean water. Scientists found that some of the proteins contained in the seeds interact with the bacteria in the water, killing and clustering them. Eventually, the bacteria lump falls down to the bottom of the watery solution, and makes the water safe to drink. Now, a team at Penn State reports it’s uncovered the mechanism that allows the “miracle tree” seeds, as they’ve been called before, to purify water. In those places of the world where there isn’t any access to clean water (850 million people), the moringa might hold true to its name and provide a cheap, sustainable solution to the problem. Just grow your own water filter and decontamination “device”.

Moringa seeds. Image: Penn State

Moringa seeds. Image: Penn State

One of proteins found in the tree’s seeds is a cationic protein, a positively-charged protein, which contains a little peptide sequence that acts like a molecular knife. So this little molecular knife goes through the bacterial cell wall and kills it, basically slitting it open. We have data showing that for one type of E. coli bacteria, the moringa proteins not only take the bacteria out, but kill the bacteria too. And because the moringa protein is naturally positively charged, it’s able to wrap up sediment in water, which is mostly negatively charged, allowing the sediment to settle out of water very quickly. This is why you need to add sand to the water, along with the ground seeds,  so the proteins can anchor the sand and dispatch the bacteria.

“We add the crushed moringa seed to water so that the proteins go into the water. Next we add sand, so that the active protein in the solution anchors onto the sand. The rest of the proteins and organic matter — called biochemical oxygen demand, or BOD — is rinsed away. The functionalized sand is now active, and we have data to show that this sand can clean water and kill pathogens. When you’re done, you just let the sand settle out of the water, so that the sand can be used again. That’s the core of the idea,” said Stephanie Velego of Penn State.

In a recent paper published in Langmuir, the same team at Penn State that has been studying the moringa for years has now uncovered the bacterial kill mechanism. Apparently, the protein fuses the membranes of the bacteria together. A membrane is one of the most vital parts of a cell, and once it’s breached it spells big trouble for the bacteria.

The researchers also found that the best time to harvest the seeds is right when the plant matures during the rainy seasons. That’s when its bacterial fighting abilities are the strongest.

Left: water treated with the crush seeds. Right: unaltered. Image: Penn State

Left: water treated with the crush seeds. Right: unaltered. Image: Penn State

So far, the moringa is shaping up as a great tool to clean water effectively and cheaply. It can even be grown in the desert. Moreover, since the plant itself is also high in protein, it can serve as food, and when you grind the seeds you also get oil. The university has made some tests in Haiti so far, but given its wide use since antiquity it may be possible for it to prove effective across many situations. A won’t certainly kill all bacteria. This is definitely the safety mark they need to handle next: identify all those bacteria the seeds can neutralize.

via PopSci