COP27: The Sussex Seed Bank racing against time to protect UK plant life from climate change

The Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst is described as a 'Noah's Ark insurance policy' against extinction Credit: ITV Meridian

There's just five days to go until world leaders will gather in Egypt for the long-awaited COP27 conference.

Representatives from countries across the globe will meet in Sharm-El-Sheikh to agree shared goals to tackle climate change.

Last year, pledges were made at COP26 in Glasgow, but a lot has changed since then.

Russia has invaded Ukraine, there's a cost-of-living crisis, we're on our third prime minister and we have a new Monarch.

But during all those events, has any progress been made in a year that saw some of the highest temperatures ever recorded?

While governments work on a way forward - scientists are planning for the worst.

One of the most important places across the south east that is focusing on those all important priorities and future proofing our planet in the fight against climate change is the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst in West Sussex.

It's the largest plant conservation project in the world - described as a 'Noah's Ark insurance policy' against extinction.

Housed at Kew's Wakehurst Gardens in Ardingly, it is bomb-proof, flood-proof and fire-proof and even designed to withstand the impact of a plane.

Prince Charles opened the Millennium Seed Bank in November 2000 Credit: Kew Gardens

It acts as a protective shell around more than 2.5 billion seeds.

David Attenborough has described it as, perhaps, the most important conservation initiative.

The Millennium Seed Bank represents an international effort to save biodiversity. It houses 40,000 species of plants from 190 different countries.

The Seed Bank was opened by the then Prince Charles in November 2000 - the King himself well known as an environmental campaigner.

The aspiration of the site was to bank 10% of the world’s wild seeds by 2010, but 12 years later, it represents the largest wild seed conservation project in the world.

But why store seeds?

Scientists have described protecting plant life as "a race against time".

It's estimated two in five plant species are at risk of extinction, so by storing the seeds away from their natural habitat, experts say it helps protect world’s most threatened plants.  

The plants can then be reintroduced back into the wild or used for scientific research for future food or medicines. 

Seeds from around the world are stored in sub-zero chambers Credit: Millennium Seed Bank

How does it work?

The process begins when the seeds are collected from a population of plants.

Once they arrive at the seed bank a pressed specimen of the plant is sent to a herbarium, to have its identity confirmed by a botanist.

They are given individual reference numbers which can be matched with their field data and herbarium specimens.

They are then freeze-dried which increases a seed’s life by up to 40 times.

Once dried and cleaned, they stored in labelled air-tight containers, stored at -20C in the sub-zero chambers underground at the MSB vault.

Once frozen, samples are tested every ten years to see if they can still germinate successfully.

The Millennium Seed Bank is home to more than 2.5 billion seeds Credit: Millennium Seed Bank

What does it mean for the future?

The Seed Bank has been described as an "insurance policy" against extinction.

According to scientists, having a global network of seed banks means fewer threatened plant species will be lost forever.

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