Desert Plant Seeds Added to International Vault

Monday, May 2, 2011

A University of Arizona scientist has left a collection of desert plant seeds in a most un-desert-like place.

In February, Margaret Norem, a researcher with the UA department of arboretum affairs, traveled to the noted Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on a remote island off the coast of Norway and just a few hundred miles from the North Pole.

Norem, who has a doctorate in plant sciences, brought with her seeds from 74 desert legume species collected from 10 countries.

The seeds are from the Desert Legume Program, or DELEP, the research arm of Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park in Superior, Ariz., part of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They are among the 3,524 species of legumes from 57 countries that DELEP has been seed banking for the last 22 years.

DELEP is only the third U.S. organization to have seeds accepted by Svalbard, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange, Inc. Svalbard, whose three-year-old vault is tunneled deep into a mountain near the Arctic Circle, currently houses about half a million seed samples, a hedge against biodiversity losses caused by catastrophic events.

Norem said the USDA-ARS National Germplasm System recognized the importance of DELEP several years ago and "started backing up our collection in Fort Collins, Colo., an accomplishment granted to few organizations."

Banking seeds at Fort Collins also was one of the prerequisites for DELEP to gain entry to Svalbard. The other factor was the importance of the DELEP seeds to agriculture. Planting legumes helps farmers replenish their soils and many of them – such as alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) – are widely sown for food and animal feed.

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