The Agricultural Research Service this month shipped some precious cargo to Norway: seeds from 20,000 different crop samples maintained by the agency's National Plant Germplasm System.

The shipments--to Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault--serve a two-fold purpose, according to ARS plant physiologist David Ellis. The first is to ensure the safekeeping of duplicate copies of seeds already maintained in the NPGS, which contains more than 500,000 accessions of cultivated plants and their wild relatives.

The second purpose is to help promote world food security by adding to the genetic diversity of crops whose seeds are now stored in the vault, or will be. These include aroids, maize, banana, cassava, carrot, finger millet and sunflower.

This month's shipment, the second by ARS since January 2008, contains pepper, lettuce, pea, rice, flax, sorghum, wheat and safflower seeds. Over the next 10 to 15 years, it's hoped that seeds from almost all of the 500,000 NPGS accessions will be represented in the vault, according to Ellis, curator of the plant collection at the ARS National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo.

The vault's entrance resembles a fin protruding from the side of a mountain on one of a group of Svalbard islands, located midway between Norway and the North Pole. The vault's three storage chambers are nestled in permafrost deep inside the mountain, which helps preserve the seeds.

The vault, which was built to store 2 billion seeds and celebrates its one-year anniversary on February 26, is administered by the Nordic Genetic Resources Center for the Norwegian government in partnership with The Global Crop Diversity Trust. The Trust was co-founded by the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization and Bioversity International.

About 1,400 genebanks are operated worldwide. But the vault isn't meant to replace them. Rather, it provides a backup in the event that seeds--and the genetic diversity encoded with them--are lost to equipment failures, mismanagement, budgetary cuts, natural disasters and other catastrophes.

ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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