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First seed withdrawal from 'doomsday' vault prompted by Syrian civil war

Crop Trust

Scientists are preparing to make the first ever withdrawal from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed bank built in an abandoned Arctic coal mine that's designed to preserve crops and plants in the event of global disaster. The civil war in Syria has prompted the withdrawal, with researchers in the Middle East requesting seeds to replace those previously stored in a gene bank in the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo. "Protecting the world's biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault," a spokesperson for the seed bank, Brian Lainoff, told Reuters.

Some 130 boxes containing 116,000 samples have been requested by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas or ICARDA. The organization was previously headquartered in Aleppo, but moved to Beirut in 2012 due to the ongoing war. It's devoted to developing drought-resistant plants and crops, among other things, and although its gene bank in Aleppo is reportedly still partly functioning, its long-term status is uncertain and it can no longer act as a hub for researchers in the Middle East.

The vault's location in the arctic permafrost was chosen to keep it out of harm's way

ICARDA's request, which will be fulfilled after the paperwork is complete, accounts for roughly a seventh of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault's current stock. The "doomsday" vault was built in 2008 and houses around 864,000 samples from almost every country in the world. This store is being steadily added to over time, and the center's total capacity is estimated to be around 4.5 million seeds. The vault's location in the geologically stable permafrost of the Arctic was chosen to keep its contents safe in the event of global catastrophe. The facility is 130 meters above sea level and even without power is designed to stay frozen and secure for around 200 years. Its operating body, the Crop Trust, describes it as "the final backup."

The vault's main focus is on crop diversity, and it currently holds more than 159,000 types of wheat and 146,000 types of rice. Speaking to ABC.net.au, Professor Cary Fowler, one of the vault's creators, said it was necessary to preserve such a vast number of varieties in order to account for a changing world. "Sometimes you wonder, why are we saving something? But it might have just one particular trait and that trait might, economically, be so valuable that it would pay the cost of your entire gene bank [...] I can tell you that we're going to face a huge food security crisis and we need not only to conserve this diversity but we need to research it."


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