The repositories that hold seeds, information, and genetic material in order to safeguard our future.
“May we enter?” I am taken aback by my own question, as I peer through a small window in the door of an underground vault. There are six of these vaults, resembling walk-in freezers, with a temperature of -20C inside. It is a dreary winter day at the Millennium Seed Bank in Wakehurst, Sussex, and the dull corridors and strong concrete only add to the austere atmosphere reminiscent of 1984. These vaults are built to endure any catastrophic event imaginable – whether it be from bombs, radiation, floods, or disease.
Dr. Elinor Breman, a senior researcher who is accompanying me today, briefly pauses before answering my question. She confirms that I can enter, but only if I sign a waiver and do not have any heart conditions. This seems reasonable to me. I sign the waiver after reading the warnings about frostbite and hypothermia, and Dr. Breman gives me a protective blue coat. Before we enter, she flips a switch and casually explains that this will trigger an alarm if we do not exit within five minutes.
Upon entering, the door closed behind us and we were met with the one solution to our potential destruction: a pantry filled with rows of sealed glass jars containing seeds. This seed bank is the largest in existence, with nearly 2.5 billion seeds preserved and ready for use for hundreds, if not thousands, of years to come. While most seeds are frozen in these vaults, a smaller amount are cryopreserved and kept in tanks of liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -180C.
The fans spin, the chilly air surrounds me. Breman grabs some jars, but is unable to identify the contents – a barcode method is utilized for decoding them, adding an extra level of protection. Overall, this location serves as a backup for over 40,000 types of wild plants from around the world, including almost all of the UK’s indigenous plants, such as cowslips and bluebells. After approximately two minutes, my fingers tingling, we depart.
Established in the year 2000, this repository of seeds is among a large number of 1,700 across the globe, referred to as “doomsday vaults.” These facilities are designed to protect humanity in case of the downfall of civilization. It goes beyond just storing seeds – scientists are also preserving DNA, data, and even feces. In the event of a disaster, these modern-day arks could serve as a roadmap for our revival.
According to Breman, the Millennium Seed Bank serves as a “safety net” to prevent species from becoming extinct, and plays a crucial role in preserving the planet’s rapidly decreasing biodiversity. Unfortunately, the outlook is grim, with a report by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew revealing that two out of every five plant species are at risk of extinction. The main culprits behind this alarming trend are human activities such as industrial farming, deforestation, pollution, and climate change. However, it is important to note that humans are heavily reliant on plants for various essential purposes such as food, medicine, clothing, and even the air we breathe. As Breman points out, while it may seem altruistic, the preservation of these plants is ultimately necessary for our own survival.
The idea for storing seeds in doomsday vaults originated in the 1920s, when Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist, established one in what is currently St Petersburg. This vault still exists and reportedly, during World War II, some of its scientists chose to starve rather than consume the seed collection, while also defending it from both hungry citizens and advancing German troops during the 28-month siege of Leningrad. These vaults generally function like traditional banks – you deposit your seeds for safekeeping and can withdraw them when necessary.
Although the term “doomsday” may bring to mind apocalyptic scenarios, several banks are currently in operation for various purposes, including research and addressing smaller scale disasters such as war or natural calamities that have already occurred. The Millennium Seed Bank, for instance, has been utilizing its collection for over ten years to revive chalk grasslands in the South Downs region, and has also undertaken projects in Madagascar, Indonesia, and Mexico. Similarly, seeds from Vavilov’s institute were employed to rehabilitate crops in the Soviet Union after the war.
In the frigid mountains of Svalbard, a distant group of islands located between Norway and the North Pole, there is a separate storage facility known as the doomsday vault, dedicated to preserving the world’s data. Established in 2017, the Arctic World Archive houses physical film reels owned by the Norwegian company Piql, stored 300 meters underground in a decommissioned mine. Founder Rune Bjerkestrand explains that the vault’s purpose is to safeguard global memory and invaluable information for future generations. In an age of cyber threats and false information, the vault also prioritizes ensuring that data cannot be manipulated, edited, or altered by any individual or group’s beliefs.
During a Zoom meeting, Bjerkestrand displays a strip of film from the vault’s collection. While it may seem transparent, when held up to the light with Bjerkestrand’s arm as a backdrop, I can see its contents: a miniature representation of the Taj Mahal, created from a 3D scan by the Archaeological Survey of India. The vault also houses Sweden’s complete art database, consisting of approximately 140,000 pieces, a selection of manuscripts from the Vatican library, and a digital version of Edvard Munch’s iconic painting, The Scream. In 2020, GitHub, the largest source code host in the world, announced that they had stored 21TB of data on 186 reels of film at the vault.
Ensuring safety is of utmost importance at the Millennium Seed Bank, with measures such as alarm systems and video monitoring in place. Surprisingly, polar bears also serve as security guards, as explained by Bjerkestrand. Although it may seem comical, he shares a serious incident where a Dutch individual was attacked by a polar bear near the vault entrance a few years ago. The land’s natural conditions are ideal for preserving photosensitive film, with the vaults being dry, dark, and constantly cold due to the surrounding permafrost.
This island is so well-suited for preservation that it even houses another financial institution, known as the Global Seed Vault. Established in 2008 by the Norwegian government, it serves as the agricultural equivalent of the Millennium Seed Bank. With a vast collection of over 1 million seed varieties, including crops like rice, wheat, and beans, it acts as a backup facility for vital food production crops and is utilized by other seed banks around the world for long-term storage. Similar to the Millennium Seed Bank, its significance has already been demonstrated – in 2015, researchers from a seed bank in Syria were able to retrieve a deposit from the vault to restore their collections in Morocco and Lebanon after being displaced by the civil war.
When designing a vault, there are many factors to consider. The location must be secure and as politically stable as possible, such as Svalbard which is a demilitarized zone. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, the president of the Microbiota Vault, acknowledges that the world is becoming increasingly complex, as evidenced by recent conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine. Dominguez-Bello’s project aims to protect microbial diversity, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses, and is still in its initial phases.
Some microbes are harmful to human health, but others have a positive impact by aiding in digestion and preventing illness. The Microbiota Vault aims to protect these beneficial microbes by freezing human feces. According to Dominguez-Bello, microbiomes are essential for the survival of every species on the planet. However, human activities like excessive use of antibiotics can disrupt this balance.
Possible locations that have been suggested include abandoned military bunkers in the Swiss Alps or a site in Norway. However, the cost of constructing a vault is a major obstacle, as with other similar projects. According to Dominguez-Bello, it would require “hundreds of millions” to bring her vault to fruition. She acknowledges that significant funding is needed in order for the project to be sustainable, which is challenging given the current global climate.
Some people are exploring beyond Earth, even to the moon. In 2021, a team of engineers from the University of Arizona shared ambitious plans for a solar-powered “lunar ark”. This project aims to freeze and store seeds, sperm, and egg samples in a facility located in the moon’s lava tubes – tunnels created by lava flows billions of years ago. The goal is to preserve Earth’s biodiversity in case of a sudden catastrophic event, like a massive volcanic eruption or a significant asteroid impact.
Jekan Thanga, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the university, and leader of the project, acknowledges the fragility of our current society. He emphasizes that unexpected events have the potential to significantly alter the course of Earth. Thanga also points out that Earth’s vaults may not be equipped to withstand catastrophic events. The effects of climate change have already led to the destruction or theft of gene bank collections in places like Svalbard, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Even relatively recent events, such as the flooding of the Philippines’ national gene bank, serve as evidence of this vulnerability.
However, Thanga’s proposals may require some adjustments as they currently aim to save only 50 samples of each species through approximately 250 rocket launches. This is a significant contrast to the practices at the Millennium Seed Bank, where the ideal collection consists of 10,000 seeds per species. These proposals may seem unrealistic. Thanga acknowledges that it may be difficult to implement them. He believes that with the use of cryopreservation units, progress in various fields must be made within the next 30 years to achieve this goal. However, this will not come without a significant cost.
On Earth, Brendon Noble is currently the chairperson of the Frozen Ark project. This project has successfully preserved approximately 48,000 genetic material samples from endangered animals, amounting to about 5,500 species. These include various animals such as honeybees, the now extinct-in-the-wild North Africa’s scimitar-horned oryx, the Colombian spider monkey, and the snow leopard. Noble believes that their work is crucial in fulfilling a responsibility for human survival. Animals and insects play a vital role in maintaining our ecosystems by aiding in processes such as pollination, food production, and medicine production.
The reality is undeniably concerning. According to a report from the WWF, the world’s wildlife has decreased by 69% in the last 50 years due to human actions such as deforestation, poaching, and industrial pollution. The current situation has been compared to the sixth mass extinction, which is already happening rather than being a future event. The previous mass extinction wiped out the dinosaurs. The rapid rate at which species are disappearing is incredibly alarming.
Is there a temptation to give up if humanity seems doomed? Noble strongly disagrees. He believes it’s crucial to take action and make a positive contribution. Animals are a valuable source of potential for humans. For instance, researchers have studied the naked mole-rat due to its ability to resist cancer. According to Noble, there are countless species with remarkable abilities and traits, all encoded in their DNA. It only makes sense to preserve and learn from them.
Seed banks serve as symbols of hope, despite their somber purpose. Breman believes that the Millennium Seed Bank staff would agree that our actions are paving the way for future possibilities. She states, “Each seed stored here holds the power to make a positive impact on our world.”