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The Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) International Programme

Volume 1 Number 1 - July 2004
Steve Alton

The Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) International Programme is a nine year global conservation programme (2001-2010), conceived, developed and managed by the Seed Conservation Department at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG, Kew).

The two principal aims of the Programme are to:

•collect and conserve 10% of the world’s seed-bearing flora (some 24,000 species), principally from the drylands, by the year 2010
•develop bilateral research, training and capacity-building relationships worldwide in order to support and to advance the seed conservation effort

The drylands cover a third of the Earth’s land surface, including many of the world’s poorest countries, and support almost one fifth of its population. The most immediate threat to dryland areas is desertification due to intensive human settlement in areas subject to drought. This concern is reflected in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s drylands work programme, and in the establishment of the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD).

One of the most important aspects of the MSBP is that, through its bilateral agreements and support of partner institutions, it ensures duplication of conserved seed collections at facilities all over the world, at the same time providing capital input, training and technical expertise for seed banking activities. Where agreements allow and quantities are sufficient, the germplasm stored in the Millennium Seed Bank and the other banks worldwide will be made available to the world scientific and plant conservation communities, and the Project will become a world focal point for ex situ conservation research.

The MSBP International Programme partners include institutions in Australia, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Chile, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Madagascar, Mali, Malawi, Mexico, Namibia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the USA. These collaborations have as their basis the precepts of the CBD, respecting national sovereignty and supporting national biodiversity conservation strategies. Benefit-sharing, in the form of duplicate seed storage, data exchange, technology transfer and training are all essential components of the Programme, and will help to ensure the long term sustainability of the Programme after 2010.

Collecting work has also been carried out closer to home. In the UK, around 97% of native higher plant species are now represented in the Millennium Seed Bank. This includes 88% of UK species ascribed to an IUCN Threat Category. Of these, 28% are considered to have total or adequate site coverage.

In addition to the major partnerships above, the MSBP is actively pursuing collaborations with a range of other organisations engaged in wild-species seed conservation. One such initiative is the formation of a network of European Seed Banks, which seeks to share expertise and facilities, co-ordinate the setting of priorities and therefore avoid duplication of effort across continental Europe. To support this work, funding has been secured under the European Commission’s 6th Framework Programme for Research, Technical Development and Demonstration.

These initiatives are important steps along the path to achieving Target 8, the ex situ conservation target of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, but more is needed. To this end, the UK Programme is being extended to cover the UK’s Overseas Territories, with funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In addition, the Millennium Seed Bank is keen to encourage the use of its state-of-the-art facilities by any organisation seeking long-term storage of seed material. Universities, NGOs, botanic gardens and government departments are encouraged to make use of the Millennium Seed Bank, either as the primary repository of ex situ material, or as a back-up for their own storage facilities. Donated seed samples can either be made available for research or conservation work through the Index Seminum system, or held for the sole use of the donors. Detailed information on initial viability can be provided, and samples of the material can be repatriated along with passport data and germination instructions. There are also opportunities for collaborative research, training and joint fieldwork.

The Seeds for Life Project (SfLP) in Kenya

In Kenya, five institutions, the Forestry Department (FD), National Genebank of Kenya (GBK) through Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) are working with RBG, Kew to strengthen the national capacity to store native seed. As well as strengthening the national institutions, the medium to long term objective is to ensure that this capacity is passed on to local communities, in particular to support on-farm utilisation of indigenous species. This project, the Seeds for Life Project (SfLP) has allowed the five partners to develop a harmonised 'best practise protocol' for collection and handling of plant genetic resources for long-term storage.

Joint research and continuing training programmes are central to the project.

Kenyans have undertaken research attachments at the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building at Wakehurst Place (site of the MSB). Research topics have included studies on the germination and storage of both Kenyan orchid seeds and African tree seeds, and data management issues. On-going collaborative research includes research on the suitability of locally available storage containers. These participants have contributed to the development and delivery of an undergraduate diploma course in seed conservation techniques at Maseno University. The three Kenyans who participated in the 2001 Kew Plant Conservation Techniques Diploma course developed projects on a community-based element to the SfLP, a standard operating procedure for X-ray examination of seed at KEFRI and the SfLP species prioritisation list for their assignments.

Kenyans have undertaken technical training attachments at the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building which have covered all aspects of seed processing and banking. The training has facilitated the entry of these technicians onto the diploma course at Maseno University in Kenya. Six in-country workshops have been run, on subjects including seed collecting, data and documentation, species prioritisation, project development and the science programme; these have been led by Kenyan experts, sometimes following research or training attachments at the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building.

The SfLP has supported postgraduate and undergraduates studies which includes the course at Maseno University.

Ex situ Conservation of Endemic, Vulnerable and Endangered Plant Species from Desert and Mediterranean Zones of Chile

In Chile, The Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (INIA) is working with Kew to implement a project on ex situ conservation of endemic, vulnerable and endangered plant species from desert and mediterranean zones of Chile. Collecting, joint research and a continuing training programme are central to the project, which will seeks additional academic and technical partnerships throughout central and northern Chile as it develops.
The project leader, Dr Pedro León, has been discussing with Chilean colleagues ways in which they can participate in the project, for example by contributing data and joining collecting missions. A seed collecting techniques training course was held in March 2002, attended by scientists from 13 different institutes.

The Chilean fieldwork team is initially concentrating on threatened geophytes and later attention will move to endangered tree and shrub species from central Chile. For these species, research is required into seed storage behaviour. In addition, Kew and INIA will jointly work to gather appropriate information about the Chilean dryland flora. The project database will include information on the biology and ecology of native species, specially focused on information related to seed and fruit characteristics, germination, dispersal and pollination.

Collecting expeditions take place principally between November and April each year. Targeting of species for conservation is helped by access to the specimen data held at the Universidad de la Serena, Museo Nacional, and Unviersidad de Conceptión (Flora of Chile database).

The project's seed research forms part of the regional CEAZA (Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Áridas, Chile) project investigating the effect of the El Niño southern oscillation (ENSO) on the adaptation of the flora and fauna.