FORT COLLINS (AP) – As climate change jeopardizes the world’s doomsday seed vault near the North Pole, a similar Fort Collins facility continues to stock up its collection.
The modern-day Noah’s Ark, located on the campus of Colorado State University, houses more than 850,000 plant seeds and materials, as well as various DNA samples from about 160 breeds of livestock.
Like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway – which needs a $12.7 million upgrade to combat melting permafrost – the Fort Collins vault is meant to preserve plant types in case they are wiped out by natural or human-made disasters.
The facility, formally known as the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation, is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The whole point is we are saving the resources for the world,” said Gayle Volk, a scientist at the Fort Collins seed vault for the past 19 years.
The Fort Collins vault was built by the federal government in 1953 – decades before the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. The city was chosen because of the dry climate and adjacent university.
The building has thick cement walls and is specifically designed to withstand natural disasters like tornadoes or severe flooding if Horsetooth Reservoir were to break.
Backup generators are installed to guarantee complete climate control. An actual vault locks in the country’s largest seed collection every night, and only a handful of the site’s 40 employees know the combination.
“This building has the ability to handle catastrophes, and that’s really important,” said Harvey Blackburn, a scientist at the Fort Collins facility for the past 19 years.
The seeds and animal matter are preserved either in cooler rooms set to 0 degrees Fahrenheit or submerged in liquid nitrogen inside of stainless steel tanks. Some plants, like apples, have their twigs saved because those trees grow from grafting and not directly from seeds. Small portions of roots are saved from some plants, like strawberries.
Staff members are continually testing the stored seed and plant matter to make sure they are still alive.
“As you go from one species of a plant to another, it requires a different set of techniques,” Blackburn said. “And we are constantly refining our technique here.”
Some seeds in the collection are nearly a century old – 90-year-old cotton seeds from the facility were recently grown as part of a research project.
A famous 1940s experiment started in California is now housed at the facility. Test tubes containing those seeds are tested regularly and many have survived.
All new seed patents in the U.S. – like the GMO varieties made by Monsanto – are also required to be stored in the vault.
“We work for scientists of the future but also with scientists of the past,” said research leader Christina Walters, who has worked at the Fort Collins vault for three decades.
Rare wild ancestor plant seeds are stored and offer crucial genetic clues to researchers. Some specific plants, such as corn, have their entire evolution preserved in Fort Collins.
As humans have domesticated seeds, they have gone from being small and dark to bigger and lighter.
Seeds from the Fort Collins vaults have specifically helped scientists create wheat resistant to a harmful disease called Russian wheat aphid, more efficient corn and better harvests of sunflowers, corn and chickpeas.
The animal matter has also been used to reintroduce two Y chromosomes to Holstein cow breeders and helped farmers fight a lethal mutation that was found in Angus cattle.
“We are working collaboratively with breeders to help solve these problems,” Volk said.
About 700 people tour the Fort Collins vault every year. Many of the visitors are from other countries. A recent group featured people representing 24 different countries.
Scientists from Fort Collins often travel around the world to share insights and collect new items for the vault, preserving history and protecting the future of plants from around the world.
“This takes an international effort,” Walters said.