Working with the world-renowned Kew Gardens in London, Singapore has set up a new seed bank to help ensure survival of native plant populations against threats such as climate change, disease, and natural and man-made disasters. By James Teo.
Singapore, July 2019. Singapore’s first seed bank was officially launched in July by the National Parks Board (NParks), in a restored colonial-style house in the old Cluny Road quarter. The facility will include a seed biology lab, rooms for seed processing, and specialised storage freezers for seeds that will have storage capacity for up to 25,000 plant species. This is about half the total number of seeding plant species in the southeast Asia region, and more than double the number already cultivated in Singapore’s Botanic Gardens.
NParks will be working with Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank to learn best practices on the management of seeds from tropical plants. Several major private donors have helped in funding the new venture, and NParks will also be looking for public contributions to help pay for seed conservation work, through the new Garden City Fund.
“With increasing threats from diseases, natural disasters and climate change, the natural dispersal mechanisms of seeds may not be enough in future,” said Minister for National Development, Desmond Lee, at the launch. “Seed banking is a form of insurance for plant biodiversity. This (new project) enhances the Botanical Gardens' role in botanical conservation, research and education. It will also complement existing seed banking efforts for agriculture and forestry by research institutions globally, and ensure that we can conserve our natural heritage for the benefit of future generations."
One example of the critical role played by the seed conservators is the critically endangered Singaporean sub-species of Sepetir tree. Seed samples have been collected from one of the few known examples in Singapore, a heritage-classed tree that has survived on the seafront at Changi village. When there’s a need for habitat restoration in the future, the seeds stored in the bank can be used to create new plants.
The Seed Bank also houses a seed biology lab, rooms for seed processing and storage freezers. In-house scientists will conduct research on various long-term storage methods to keep seeds collected from tropical plants across the region. As Seed Bank director Ang Wee Foong said, "In Singapore many of our plant species are known to be critically endangered. But in recent years we have discovered new species that were thought to be extinct here. The seeds we conserve can be planted back here in the future."
Seed Bank scientists note that as well as seed collection and storage, research is also crucial to continually optimise seed storage procedures. They stress the need to understand the physiology of different seeds, for example those of dipterocarp trees, which are unable to endure the level of drying normally required for ongoing cold storage.
“These are known as recalcitrant seeds, and knowledge about them is limited – so research will be conducted to identify similar species and establish optimal storage conditions for them,” say the researchers.
As well as providing a valuable resource, the Seed Bank will be open to the public. Visitors will be able to learn about seed banking and conservation work in the display galleries, and staff and volunteers will run guided tours and public talks about the value of native seeds and flora conservation.
Originally called Mansfield Lodge when it was built in the 1920s as part of Raffles College campus, the new Seed Bank premises was designated as a Conserved Building in October 2006. Before that, it served as the college president’s house. Today it is in the front line of preserving valuable plant DNA.
“Plant populations are repositories of genetic diversity, and collecting seeds for storage helps to build a valuable resource for habitat restoration and species conservation,” say the Bank’s management. “Additionally, the Botanical Gardens will collaborate with other botanic gardens and research institutions on seed exchanges.”