Seeds are stored at a drying room of a German seed bank in 2015. Image Credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images
Destruction in Syria has reached into the global food supply. The seed vault in Aleppo—a crucial resource for scientists and the future of our planet—has been forced to shut down by the chaos and conflict of the civil war. Scientists are now busy readying sister sites in Lebanon and Morocco in order to keep the seeds accessible and safe.
The first seed banks were founded in the 1980s with the goal of preserving our planet’s biodiversity, shoring up agricultural seed reserves, and creating a genetic backup in the event of food crop shortages. The mother of them all is the Global Seed Vault (also known as the Doomsday Vault) in Svalbard, which holds more than 200 million seeds from around the world in a former coal mine on an island in the Arctic.
Other centers are more locally focused. The seed bank in Aleppo is run by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which aims to preserve the DNA of plants from the driest parts of the world. The vault houses over 141,000 seeds representing 700-plus species, including the wild ancestors of modern staple crops like wheat, barley, and lentils.
Unlike the Doomsday Vault, which is, well, a vault, the seed bank in Aleppo was designed for both deposits and withdrawals. Its contents represent a vital resource to scientists, plant breeders, and farmers, who all need to be able to draw upon the samples within for their work.
But lately, that’s been just about impossible to do. Most of the staff was forced to leave in 2012. The most recent inspection of the facilities found the vault itself intact, but the work of managing the bank cannot go on.
Recognizing the need for a new plan, ICARDA made the world’s first withdrawal from the Doomsday Vault last year. The group withdrew samples of some of the same plants stored within the Aleppo bank and sent them to nearby sites in Rabat, Morocco and Terbol, Lebanon. The idea is to duplicate the Aleppo bank’s contents as closely as possible—to create a backup of the backup.
The seeds from Svalbard were used to start new lineages at both sites, and soon the originals will be returned to the vault.
Ahmed Amri is head of genetic resources at the ICARDA research station in Rabat. “The situation in Syria did not allow us to continue our core activities,” he told Nature. “I’m happy that we have established ourselves back to normal.”
But the seed banks’ troubles are far from over. Like so many scientific enterprises, ICARDA is threatened by a lack of funding. The sister sites' combined capacity maxes out at 135,000 seeds. And Lebanon is not exactly the safest place these days, either.
Amri brushes the latter concern aside. “It’s gone through 20 years of fighting, and we never had any problems,” he said.
Still, he’s sorry to leave Syria for Terbol. “We enjoyed our lives in Aleppo. It was one of the nicest places to live—wonderful people and a good environment for research at ICARDA.”
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