As the world enters into a sixth great extinction, scientists are racing against the clock to save genetic evidence from plants around the world. This massive project, which very few people are aware of, is quietly taking place behind the scenes.
The ambitious project, launched on July 8th, aims to collect the genomes of the planet’s major plant groups within the next two years and put them into deep freeze.
The project is part of the Global Genome Initiative, which aims to gather and preserve the DNA of all life on Earth in cryo-storage facilities.
The task sounds daunting, but scientists leading the initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History say it will only take a few months to gather samples from half the world’s plant families because they’re already growing in botanic gardens. Most can be found within a five-mile (8-km) radius of Washington, DC.
There are some 500 plant families and more than 13,000 genera within those groups. The task is urgent because some species are facing extinction. In fact, scientists warn that Earth has entered its sixth mass extinction – the last such event killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
“It’s not just plants – it’s plants, animals and micro-organisms,” says John Kress, interim Under Secretary for Science at the Smithsonian Institution. “Everything that is alive and living in a natural habitat is now being threatened by degradation of those habitats primarily because of what we’re doing as humans.” He says it’s difficult to measure the rate of plant extinction but some scientists have estimated that all species of life are becoming extinct 100 times faster than normal.
The Global Genome Initiative complements ongoing efforts to save the seeds of many plants that are being stored in special vaults around the world.
“Seed banks were set up primarily to preserve the seeds of economically important crops, to keep a living bank of tissue with which we can grow these plants again in the future. The genome project is to preserve the genomic history and content of these plants so we can understand how life works,” says Kress.
“We’re learning how an organism functions. When we have the whole genome we can identify the genes that control flowering, fruiting, seed production, drought tolerance and all these things that help the plant survive in its native habitat. DNA starts to degrade within three minutes of an organism’s death. Plant samples have to be immediately frozen in canisters of liquid nitrogen before being transferred to permanent storage.
A growing international network of cryo-storage facilities is taking part in the Global Genome Initiative. There are 25 so far on every continent except Antarctica. The tanks containing the world’s largest natural history genome collection are operated by the Smithsonian at a centre in Maryland. It’s capable of holding more than four million samples.