The gobbledegook on plant labels explained.

By Nicola ‘Froggie’ Rathbone

If you visit the garden regularly you may have noticed that the green vinyl we normally scribble plant names on with a big black indelible marker pen are being replaced with black and white vinyl. They look pretty much like engraved labels but are far cheaper and easier to replace when a name changes. This has happened quite a number of times since the 1990’s when botanists began looking at the DNA of plants and decided that some have been misnamed….. (more…)

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault: a safe haven for seed

By Helen Roberts

Svalbard is a group of Norwegian islands located in the high Arctic and only 1,300 km from the North Pole. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The landscape is stark, unforgiving and wholly memorable. I visited these islands more than 16 years ago as part of a 6-week science expedition – I was part of a botanical group looking at the exceptionally low-growing Arctic Willow. 
Memories of that place are still strong today. Its beauty and sense of isolation is unique. The humdrum of everyday life is simply stripped away here. You are left with the landscape, weather and incredible flora and fauna. Although life became simple, the vastness of the place was exhilarating and I felt totally and utterly free. 
The stark landscape of Svalbard
Photo credit: Paul Williams [via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]

The Arctic is an ideal refuge for seeds

Within this unforgiving landscape, nestled deep within a mountainside, is a seed bank of global importance. It holds 12,000 years of agricultural history and contains the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. 
The Global Seed Vault is the brainchild of renowned scientist Cary Fowler, a former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. It started as a simple idea back in the 1980s in the spirit of global collaboration, and finally came to fruition in 2008 when the building was completed. However, building the collection within is ongoing.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Photo credit: Amber Case [via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]
The facility currently holds about 850,000 different varieties of seed and acts as the back up for seed banks across the globe. This is a collection that is vastly important for food security and the safeguarding of crop diversity. Those 850,000 packets of seed represent more than 5,000 species and nearly half of the world’s most important food crops, from cereal and rice to unique varieties of legumes. The seed deposits come from over 60 different institutions and represent nearly every country in the world. 
The chosen location of the global seed vault is an interesting story. It needed to be located somewhere safe from both potential natural disasters and human conflict. Svalbard itself is a safe place to store seed both in terms of physical and social factors. Svalbard’s remoteness ensures an extra layer of security, while its geological stability and location, 130m above sea level, means the vault would be safe even in the worst-case scenario of sea-level rise. The storage facility is buried 150m deep into the side of a mountain where there is no radiation and where humidity levels remain low. The mountain also acts as a natural freezer, reducing the facility’s reliance on mechanical refrigeration. The local infrastructure on Svalbard is also very good despite its remoteness – Svalbard is serviced by regular scheduled flights.
Svalbard itself is also politically very stable and military activity is prohibited in the region under the terms of the Treaty of Svalbard of 1920. The local government is highly competent and Norway has long been recognised as a key country in the international efforts to conserve Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA). 

Building and running the vault

The Global Seed Vault is built to store up to 4.5 million different varieties of seed. Constructed to be highly functional, the rectangular edifice emerging from the side of the mountain is stark but architecturally beautiful. The structure is energy efficient; insulated by the mountainside, it maintains an ambient temperature of -7°C and therefore only needs a further temperature drop to -18°C to reach the recognised standard temperature for the storage of viable seed. 
The vault was built and paid for by the Norwegian government to provide a service to the world community. The structure took 12 months to build and cost NOK 50 million (approximately £4.6 million). The facility runs as a partnership between the Government of Norway, the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Operations regarding the vault are administered and controlled by an international advisory council of experts representing the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), national gene banks, the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). 

Inside the building

Some people are lucky enough to visit the seed vault on the rare occasions that you can gain access inside. I had to see the interior of the facility via a virtual tour. 
The front entrance is understated, although to gain access you have to go through half a dozen locked doors, each requiring a different key. Although, security appears minimal, it’s not. The facility is under constant surveillance by Staatsbygg, the government of Norway’s property manager and developer;  security cameras and sensors are located throughout the building. There is some natural security, of course, as the roaming polar bears outside outnumber the human population of Svalbard. 
From the entrance lobby, a 150m long tunnel extends into the mountain before reaching the three main storage chambers. At the moment, only one storage chamber is in use, in time the others will be filled as more seed varieties are deposited. 
Seed is only deposited three times a year and this is the only time when the vault is opened. 

Making a deposit


The metal shelves inside the Global Seed Vault.
Photo credit: Dag Terje Filip Endresen
[via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]
On arrival to Svalbard, seed lots are x-rayed and taken to the vault by NordGen staff members. The seed boxes containing the seed, which have been carefully placed in 3-ply aluminium packages, are then wheeled by trolley to the main storage chamber within the vault. Each package will contain on average 500 seeds. 
The seed lots are placed on simple metal shelving and are assigned bar codes to allow easy retrieval. They are catalogued using an information system called the Seed Portal of The Svalbard Seed Vault. This allows depositors to submit seed inventories and the general public to look at basic information about the seed that is stored within. Storage is free to depositors and they control access to the deposits. It is an International Black Box system, which ensures that only the depositor can access the raw seed and open the boxes. 

The most recent seed deposits

Last year, the first tree seeds were deposited from Norway and Finland. In February, pine and spruce seed was taken to the vault for storage from the Norwegian Forest Seed Center and the Finnish gene reserves forests of Lappträsk and Puolango, and Filpula and Lovisa. This deposit provides a back-up in the event that global climate change, forest management techniques and other factors, such as pests and disease begin to compromise the genetic diversity of these forests. It is a method of conserving the existing genetic resources and enabling long-term monitoring of the genetic variation within these forests, including any changes that occur because of tree breeding. This long-term tree seed project involves the countries of Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Norway. 
The last deposit of seed was on 26th May 2016, with deposits from Germany, Thailand, New Zealand and the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan. Germany placed over 6,000 accessions into the vault of a number of different crop varieties, New Zealand deposited a number of varieties of sheep food including rye grass and white clover, Thailand deposited some 20 samples of very special chilli peppers and the World Vegetable Center deposited 1,200 seed lots from a number of different nations. 

Our agricultural future

The importance of this seed vault is apparent; it ensures the survival of the world’s most important crop species. Some seed varieties within the depths of this safe haven can survive for up to 4,000 years. In terms of food security, that is long term planning for human agriculture. 

Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.


References:

Doomsday Vault Opened for Syrian Seeds: 
What is NordGen?:
Croptrust: 
Forest seed destined for Svalbard:
Forest tree seeds arrive at Svalbard’s ‘Doomsday vault’:
Arctic seed vault ‘key to future global crops’:
Storing the World’s Seeds in a Frozen Mountainside:
From sheep food to chili peppers – seed deposit at Arctic Vault takes the world one step closer to future food security: 
In the vault: David Osit:
Svaalbard Global Seed Vault:

The fascination of plants

By Helen Roberts

For the past three years, the University of Bristol Botanic Garden has hosted Fascination of Plants Day. The event is part of a much larger initiative launched under the umbrella of the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO). The goal of the day is to get people interested in plants and share the significance of plant science in both the social and environmental arenas.

In 2013, the inaugural year of the event, a total of 689 institutions in 54 countries opened their doors to the public and talked about the wonder of plants. The activities carried out by each institution were extremely varied, but they were united in their celebration of plants. Here at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, there was a focus on plant classification. In Russia, huge numbers of people attended guided tours on Siberian flora. In Nigeria, focus groups discussed possible partnerships between farmers, processors and scientists. In Norway, workshops were held for children to teach them how to grow their own vegetable gardens.

This year, Fascination of Plants Day was held on Sunday, 17th May. Students at the University of Bristol were in the garden discussing plant classification and research in the plants sciences. I met two final-year undergraduate students, Joshua Valverde and Will Perry, who were on hand discussing different topics within the plant sciences and fielding questions from the public.

What’s in a name?

Many queries related to binomial nomenclature or plant naming. In biology, the name of a plant (and indeed all living things) is divided into two parts; the first name – the genus –  defines a group that comes from a common ancestor and have some common features and the second part – the species – groups together organisms that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Together, the genus and species forms the Latin name. Poster information compiled by Joshua explained the history of plant classification.

Joshua explained how plant classification changed over the centuries.

“To begin with, Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher, was one of the first to document and characterise plants by their morphological features. After that, plants were classified according to their medicinal use. And then long and unwieldy Latin names were used based on the morphology of the particular plant. It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that Carl Linnaeus introduced the binominal system.”

Of course, taxonomists don’t always agree on which groupings some species belong to, nor on where groups should be placed in the broader contexts of plant evolution. Classification of plants originally relied on finding similarities in form and structure (morphology) between plants. “This was subject to error though because unrelated species may evolve similar structures as a result of living in similar habitats or in response to some other adaptive need. This is called convergent evolution,” explained Joshua.

However, molecular methods have helped resolve some of these disputes.

Gnetum gnemon, a member of the order Gnetales.
Photo courtesy of gbohne on Flickr CC.

“Morphological data suggested that the order Gnetales [what we now consider a group of ‘advanced’ conifers] was the closest living relative to the first flowering plant,” explained Joshua. “After molecular analyses of various genes, however, it is now thought that Amborella trichopoda [a shrub native to New Caledonia] is the closest living relative to the first flowering plant. Water lilies also seem to be quite an ancient lineage.”

Will informed me that visitors were particularly interested in how DNA sequencing over the last decade has advanced our understanding of the evolution of plants. He explained that a lot of this work has been carried out by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) – an informal group of systematic botanists from around the world who are trying to reach a consensus on the taxonomic groupings of flowering plants. In fact, one of the phylogenetic trees produced by the APG is displayed on a visitor information board in the Botanic Garden.

The roots of a prestigious society

Additional information on plant classification included details about the Linnean Society of London. This society was founded in 1778 and named after the famous Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). The aims of the society are to “inspire and inform the public in all areas of natural history through its broad range of events and publications”.

The society maintains the vast animal and plant collections of Carl Linnaeus (the Linnean Herbarium holds some 14,300 specimens alone), looks after his personal library as well as having its own extensive research library. The society has a hugely prestigious past and it was at a society meeting in 1858 that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace presented papers relating to the theory of evolution by natural selection! The society today continues to report on scientific advances and holds a number of events (including a student lecture series) throughout the year ranging from the genetic diversity of farmed animals to the future of plant conservation.

Opportunities for hands-on learning

Daisy pollen in oil under a light microscope. Image courtesy
of  microscopy-uk.org.uk/

For those members of the general public that enjoy hands-on learning, the Botanic Garden had some dissecting and light microscopes available to look at
various plant structures. Under one microscope there was some daisy pollen, which I heard one member of the general public describe as resembling “those spiky looking naval mines”.

Fascination of Plants Day is held each May, so be sure to join us in the Garden for this worthwhile event next year! And don’t forget to come down to the Festival of Nature this weekend (13th-14th June) learn about pitcher plant research, soil and so much more!

Beans and bacteria – a complex story of communication

The symbiotic relationship between legumes and soil bacteria has been known for well over a century. The intimate details of this relationship, however, are only recently being revealed. It is a very active area of research as understanding this symbiotic relationship could lead to strategies that help reduce the environmental impacts of food production. 
Rhizobia nodules on the roots of cowpea
(Vigna unguiculata). By Stdout
[GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html),
via Wikimedia Commons.
Special soil bacteria – known as rhizobia – reside within the nodules of legumes, such as peas, lentils, beans, alfalfa and clover, which are found along the roots of these plants. The bacteria take nitrogen from the air and convert it into ammonia, which the plant is able to use – a process known as nitrogen “fixing”.
This allows legumes to grow well in nitrogen-poor soils. This nitrogen is taken up in the plant material, which can then be worked back into the soil as a natural fertiliser for subsequent crops.
While this all might sound very straight forward – there are details about this relationship that remain unclear. How do the bacteria get into the nodules? Are there signals that the plant uses to stimulate the bacteria to produce nitrogen?

An answer to a century-old debate

In 2011, researchers from the John Innes Centre in Norwich answered the mystery of how nitrogen-fixing bacteria crossed the cell walls into the nodules of legumes. 
It had been a century-old debate as to whether bacteria produced the enzymes to break down the cell walls or whether the plant did. The researchers showed that it was the plant which supplied the enzymes to break down its cell walls in order to give the bacteria access.

How legumes communicate with their symbiotic bacteria

In 2010, Stanfordresearchers discovered the gene in plants that triggered the chemical signal required for the bacteria to fix nitrogen. They found that the rhizobia bacteria would just sit around in the legume nodules if the plant failed to produce the protein that’s required to spur the bacteria into nitrogen fixing mode. This was only part of the communication story.
It is energetically costly for the plant to produce and maintain the root nodules in which the bacteria live; usually the benefit of having a supply of nitrogen outweighs this cost. If there is sufficient useable nitrogen in the soil, however, the plant is able to reduce the number of nodules on its roots.
Communication between the shoots of the plant and the roots of the plant help regulate the number of nodules. The leaves transmit a signal to the roots to either develop more or get rid of rood nodules, depending on circumstances. The roots communicate back up to the leaves using molecules known as peptides.
Research published recently has now discovered that the plant shoots use plant hormones, known as cytokinins, which travel down the phloem into the roots to help regulate nodule development.

The environmental benefits of understanding legumes

Understanding the symbiotic relationship between legumes and soil bacteria is not simply a matter of scientific curiosity. The ability for legumes to produce natural nitrogen fertilisers is a trait that US researchers would like to potentially transfer to non-legume crops as a way of reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.
Manufacturing nitrogen fertilisers for non-legumes is extremely resource intensive. It has been estimated that to produce 68 kg (150 lbs) of nitrogen fertiliser – enough for one acre of corn – would be the equivalent of driving a car 1,046 km (650 miles).
Beyond that, nitrogen fertilisers release the powerful greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, after they’ve been applied. Excess fertilisers also runoff agricultural land into rivers and lakes and eventually out into the ocean. This influx of nitrogen can provoke algal blooms and create oxygen deplete dead zones.

Therefore, there is great incentive to fully understand this relationship legumes have with soil bacteria. The environmental impact of agriculture could be significantly reduced by utilising legumes with their natural nitrogen fertiliser more by using them in more marginal land and using traditional breeding programs to select for drought resistance or temperature tolerance. In some countries, genetic engineering might even be used to introduce nitrogen-fixing abilities into non-legume species. Genetic modification, however, can be an inflammatory issue with considerable debate as to its pros and cons, particularly with respect to its use in food products.