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Why Syria’s Protecting Seeds From Its War

When civil war broke out in Syria, scientists saved more than 80 percent of a priceless trove of seeds

(Frans Lanting/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Syria’s civil war has wreaked havoc on the nation, killing over 300,000 people and plunging over half of the population into need of immediate aid. But at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), scientists thought of something else when conflict broke out—how to save samples of hundreds of thousands of types of seeds.

Wired’s Lizzie Wade reports on how a team of scientists managed to save more than 80 percent of the genebank’s holdings in Syria—a feat that recently earned ICARDA the Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize. ICARDA is one of 11 such genebanks in the world, reports Wade, and like other banks, it was tasked with helping preserve seeds that are used by plant breeders and scientists worldwide. The ICARDA focuses on crops grown in traditionally arid areas like Syria, helping preserve genes that in turn help promote agricultural development in dry areas. The genebank regularly opens up its collection, notes Wade, so that farmers can use seeds to breed desirable traits into modern crops and scientists can study them.

But when war began in Syria, the seedbank faced a challenge to its very existence. Wade reports that the worry wasn’t as much bombs or guns (though those were worrisome, too) as the possibility of a power outage that would destroy the delicate seeds, which were stored in cold rooms throughout the facility. “Luckily,” writes Wade, “the facility had been preparing for its destruction since day one.”

The ICARDA team didn’t just rely on its backups—seeds sent to other genebanks, just in case—it also drove seeds out of the country, relying on foreign connections to help ensure the seeds would make it safely across Syria’s borders. Even after the team was advised to leave the country, Wade reports, 50 members stayed behind so they could ship as many samples as possible to Norway.

Now, says Wade, genebanks around the world are trying to regenerate the crops sent away from Syria by planting the samples so they can ensure their ongoing viability. It was a risky gamble—one that is being undertaken by more and more scientists and archaeologists as they scramble to preserve Syria’s rich scientific and cultural bounty. And, reports Wade, the close call is being treated as an opportunity to improve the way seed banks function so that the treasure trove doesn’t get threatened in the future:

Genebanks are not isolated treasure troves and shouldn’t be treated as such. Their power comes from the connections between them, and the worldwide network of genetic resources those connections create.

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