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Seeding the future

A British seed bank worries that lack of funding will stop the work of saving the world's most diverse collection of seeds.

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Largest and smallest: Paul Smith, director of the Millennium Seed Bank Project in England holds in his right hand the largest known seed and in his left a jar containing more than a thousand tiny seeds.

Photos by Tom Hevezi/AP

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The underground bunker can block nuclear fallout, withstand a direct hit by a jetliner, and is cooled to a deathly chill.

The ultramodern facility in the tranquil English countryside looks like a perfect lab for a James Bond villain, but it doesn’t hide anything sinister. The only thing kept here are seeds, lots of them — more than a billion, in fact.

Scientists say this is the world’s most diverse seed bank, but its keepers worry that the global financial crisis could cut its government and corporate funding and cause the seed gathering to wither at the end of next year, well short of its goal.

“This is the world’s biodiversity hot spot,” said Paul Smith, director of the Millennium Seed Bank Project, standing outside two room-size vaults filled with precious seeds which are kept at minus 4 degrees F. to slow their metabolism.

“That’s important for mankind. But if the funding situation doesn’t improve, we’ll have to stop collecting.”

He has already seen a tightening of philanthropic budgets in recent months that is affecting the seed bank’s future. “We have not raised the kind of money we had hoped to at this point,” Smith said.

There are more than 1,000 seed banks — including a newly opened, unmanned “doomsday” facility in the Arctic wastes of Norway that will ultimately house more than 1 billion crop seeds. But the one at Wakehurst Place, about 30 miles south of London, says it’s the only global facility of its kind, unique for its focus on wild species, not just crops.

It says it aims to store a quarter of the world’s species by 2020, and could eventually house half of them. It currently has 25,000 species and 1.5 billion seeds.

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