Banking on the Future: Seed Bank Investigations Teach Biodiversity and Biocomplexity

Article excerpt

People depend on plants to fulfill many of their basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. And al-though plants are all around us (Figure 1), people are often afflicted with "plant blindness," paying more attention to animals (Wandersee and Clary 2006; Wandersee and Schussler 2001). Studying seed banks and building one in the classroom can capture students' attention about the importance of plants in our lives and help teach the concepts of biodiversity and biocomplexity.

The need for seed

Seed banks are important. They are storehouses for both crop and wild species. They protect biodiversity (Figure 2). They allow seeds to be set aside for future evolutionary biologists, who can then measure genetic change in plant species over time (the goal of Project Baseline [Pennisi 2011]).

Changes in climate can bring extreme weather and new pests to an environment, affecting biodiversity (Rosenthal 2005). Introduced diseases can decimate crops, such as stem rusts that may affect 25% of the world's wheat production (Singh et al. 2006). Natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, can destroy crops. Human-induced disasters, such as war, can also have an impact (Pearce 2005). In addition to food crops, seeds from plants used medicinally may turn out to have far-reaching impacts in modern civilization. Levine (2004) noted that a plant sacred to native Alaskans is now being threatened by its medicinal use. Similar to a Freedom Garden that includes plants grown by slaves in both the New World and Africa (Tortorello 2012), seed banks can also document cultural history.

Some scientists propose that seed banks need to move beyond collecting and storing seeds to a rigorous program for restoration initiatives (Merritt and Dixon 2011). Human activities heavily impact the biodiversity of Earth, and seed banks are an important conservation effort toward a sustain-able planet.

Misconceptions sown by news media

Most students don't fully understand the role of seed banks and their importance in preserving our planet's biodiversity. Student misconceptions may come, in part, from the news media. We studied how the openings of the largest world seed banks were reported in English-language newspapers and used two large electronic databases to research and analyze article content over 10 years.

The five most common misconceptions about seed banks we encountered are

* Seeds kept in a so-called "doomsday vault" can "source" the replanting of a devastated and barren Earth. Seeds alone are not sufficient for replanting a devastated planet, because vital biotic and abiotic factors are also required.

* All plant seeds can be "banked." Not all seeds can be stored by freezing, which is typical in seed banks. The world's fifth most valuable crop, banana, cannot be stored this way. Obviously, seed research must accompany "banking."

* Only in a global catastrophe will the banked seeds be used. The seeds will likely be needed about once a year, as local seed supplies or collections are destroyed. Examples include typhoons in the Philippines or wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

* Seed banks mainly store important plant seeds--those most valuable to the greatest number of people. Actually, these banks are part of the world battle against hunger, as crop insecurity mainly hurts poor nations. Crops important to the poor have been neglected, including millet and cow peas. These are called "orphan crops" because, until seed banks started to include these crops' seeds, there was no one to take care of them.

* Seed banking is a one-time process. Re-banking is important because the storage life of seeds varies by species. Eventually all seeds will die. Before this happens, scientists must remove seeds from storage and plant them to a harvest and then re-bank fresh seeds.

Teachers should be aware of these potential misconceptions and be ready to provide their students a more accurate and complete understanding. …