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16:10 | Jan 15 | 2013

Noah's ark for seeds

National seed storage will be built in the permafrost.

A unique facility is shortly to be opened in Yakutia – the first stage of the Federal cryo-storage for seeds. More than 100,000 seed samples of cultivated and wild, rare and endangered plant species can be preserved in this underground structure for hundreds of years. At the same time avoiding energy supply costs and providing security in the event of natural or man-made disasters.

The structure is located at a depth of nine meters; its area is 110 square meters. An obligatory condition for laying the foundation was lack of frozen or cryogenic waters on-site of the construction. The uniqueness of the object is in its energy independence. Natural conditions allow maintaining a constant temperature of 2 degrees below zero in the cryo-storage. But a double circuit system of cold-charge is going to be used for the efficiency of seed storage in the underground facility. Due to convective air movement when the top and bottom flaps are opened in the room the temperature can drop to 6-8 degrees below zero, as discovered by biologists, these temperatures are optimal for extreme long-term preserving of the viability of most plant species seeds. This way a simple, but at the same time reliable and effective system helps eliminate energy costs, gives the storage autonomy and independence from what is happening on the surface.
This unique project was preceded by many years of research by Yakut scientists, which were described by the Deputy Director of the Institute of Biological Problems of the Cryolithozone of RAS, (Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences), Professor and Doctor of Biological Sciences Boris Kershengolts. Realizing the importance of creating a national seed fund, Yakut scientists developed the idea of storage in the depth of the permafrost in the 70's of the last century. At the same time, about 20,000 specimens, mainly legume crops, were placed in an underground mine of the Permafrost Studies Institute of the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences.
Thirty years later they tested seeds for germination and the result was stunning. No visible damage of seeds or signs of aging were documented, in fact, the genetic material was in the highest degree of safety.
Inspired by what they saw, the scientists were careful to announce it to the world. But some more time was needed for a guaranteed result. During this time Norwegian colleagues managed to take advantage of the experience of Yakutian scientists and built their cryo-storage on the island of Spitsbergen, which has received international status.
When the required time passed and the positive result was unchanged, scientists reported the project to the authorities. The Government of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) allocated 5.3 million rubles for these purposes. The second tranche of the same amount was allocated by the Siberian Branch of the RAS. Currently the construction of the facility is being finalized.
The project is inter-institutional and inter-agency. Three Yakut institutes participate in it: The Institute of Biological problems of Cryolithozone, the Permafrost Studies Institute, the Institute of Mining of the North, and three Novosibirsk ones: the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology and the Institute of Physical and Chemical Biology and Fundamental Medicine. In the future, the second stage of the federal one million samples capacity seed cryo-storage is planned to be constructed.

Alexandra Alexandrova