US: Hawaiian seed bank houses world's rarest seeds

The National Tropical Botanical Garden, on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, is housed alongside NTBG’s collection of 80,000 dried plant specimens and rare botany books in a building that can withstand Category 5 hurricanes. It does have a vulnerability, though: pests. Funguses or bugs — like booklice — hiding in a visitor’s soles could threaten the collections. For the same reason, anything that’s brought into the building — office supplies, furniture, books — is frozen for two weeks.

Hawaii has lost over 130 plant species since it was first inhabited, and today, it’s home to more than 40 percent of all endangered and threatened plant species in the US. That’s because Hawaii is an island ecosystem, where plant species have evolved for millions of years in isolation. These plants are extremely vulnerable — all that time they spent cut off from the rest of the world meant that they shed defense mechanisms or simply didn’t develop them. But when people came — first from Polynesia, now from all over the world — they brought weeds and animals against which the native plants are defenseless.

Some species — like the native Kadua haupuensis, which has been ravaged by invasive pigs and goats — are thought to be extinct in the wild. But their seeds are safely stored at NTBG. If one day habitats are restored or managed so that invasive species are not a threat, these seeds could be replanted in the wild — even bringing some plants back from extinction. That’s where the seeds will play a role. (Of the 3 million seeds in the collection, 97 percent are from native Hawaiian plants.)

In the meantime, the seeds aren’t just sitting on the shelf doing nothing — they’re sprouted and grown into plants, from which new seeds are collected. That process means that the seeds at NTBG can be studied.

Read more at The Verge

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