How Gene Banks Work

Saving Plant Genes

The North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station in Iowa catalogs more than 10,000 varieties of corn.
The North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station in Iowa catalogs more than 10,000 varieties of corn.
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If you stop and look at the civilization surrounding you, you're liable to spot some truly amazing sights: aircraft and skyscrapers touching the clouds, power grids and road systems crisscrossing the land and invisible communication networks wrapping up much of the planet. Yet all of our greatest achievements in science, art and philosophy go back to one crucial breakthrough: domestic agriculture. When early humans finally began to abandon the hunting and gathering lifestyle for permanent living and crop cultivation, they finally had the time to devote to much of what we've come to know as human culture.

While early humans depended on a variety of scavenged plant and animal resources, we've since reached the point where massive fields support a single food crop that feeds millions. This puts our food supply in a very delicate situation. What happens if climate change introduces new pests or renders an area inhospitable to a former boom crop? What if disease or natural and man-made disasters wipe it out? By storing the genes behind these crops, we provide ourselves with a backup -- money in the bank, so to speak.

But major cash crops aren't the only species researchers collect in gene banks. Take the common potato for instance. It's not the only spud in the freezer -- researchers store thousands of tubers from different parts of the world to safeguard the french fries and Tater Tots of the future. If a disease comes along that targets a major food species of tuber, perhaps another, lesser-known species will serve as a suitable replacement or contain essential genetic information to engineer a resistant species.

Of course, plants fill our pharmacies as well as our dinner plates. Gene banks allow us to prepare for future unknowns by safeguarding plants that could one day play a crucial role in the development of new medicines. This is just one more reason to safeguard not only plants we use, but also protect global biodiversity by preserving the rest. This includes more than 500 plant species from around the world listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Who knows what wonder drug is out there right now, undiscovered in an endangered portion of the Amazon rain forest?

The concept of stockpiling plant genes is nothing new. Farmers have stored away seeds to ensure future harvests for thousands of years. Today, seed banks all over the world work to chronicle and store the genetic blueprints for crops, especially those that are vital food crops. Some of these are government-owned, others are operated by private and international organizations. For a detailed look at these operations, read How Seed Banks Work.

Botanists can preserve genetic material in two ways. One method involves drying and freezing the seeds at temperatures more or less on par with a typical winter. Some seeds can survive in this state for decades, but eventually require thawing and regrowing to provide fresh, vital seeds. However, if the seeds are frozen at lower, cryonic temperatures, all molecular motion comes to a halt. While this second method is far more expensive than normal freezing, it vastly increases the shelf life of a plant's genetic material.

Currently more than 1,400 gene banks worldwide store seeds and gene samples from hundreds of different plants [source: Popular Science].

­Bu­t what about the planet's animal life? On the next page, we'll look at some of our efforts to protect endangered animals and resurrect extinct ones.