Just over 1,000 kilometres from the north pole, 130 metres above sea level and 120 metres inside a limestone mountain lies the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. First opened in 2008 close to the town of Longyearbyen, the facility houses over a million distinct seed varieties at roughly minus 18 degrees Celsius – a long-term insurance policy intended to preserve the world’s agricultural heritage far into the future.
The seeds stored on Svalbard come from all over the world, with boxes from Russia sharing shelf-space with those sent from the USA, China, and Ukraine, demonstrating how science can elevate human progress above conflict or political disagreements.
Storing genetic information to support scientific progress
While Svalbard’s Global Seed Vault is possibly the most famous of its type, in part due to its moniker of the ‘Doomsday Vault’, nearly every country on earth operates a national gene bank of some kind. From Australia to Zimbabwe, Kuwait to South Korea, it is easier to find a country which doesn’t operate some form of gene bank than one which does.
The International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration (INSDC) is a long-standing partnership which centralises access to human DNA and RNA collected by the DNA Data Bank of Japan (DDBJ), European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in the UK, and National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in the USA. By providing scientists with secure digital access to some of the world’s largest DNA and RNA resources, the INSDC supports everything from genomics research to the development of specialised medicines and treatments.
The EU’s 1+ Million Genomes’ Initiative offers an example of the kind of impact the secure sharing of human genetic information may have. Bringing together the 22 nations of the EU plus the UK and Norway, the initiative aims to have make least 1 million sequenced genomes accessible by 2022. Categorisation of this information will create a ground-breaking research resource, one which could lead to the development of targeted personalised medicines and therapies, while at the same time boosting prevention and making better use of scarce medical resources.
The China National GeneBank (CNGB), located in Shenzen and managed by BGI Group, performs many of the same functions as both the Global Seed Vault and the INSDC. A non-profit organisation established to nurture international genomics R&D, the CNGB enables scientists from around the world to study plant, animal, and human genetic material in a secure setting.
The genomics science taking place in Shenzen and elsewhere will also likely benefit from rapid progress being made in quantum computing, which promises to revolutionise computer science by producing machines capable of making certain calculations far faster than classical computers. In October 2021, a Chinese research team led by Pan Jianwei of the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), claimed to have developed a programmable quantum computer over one million times more powerful than its nearest competitor, Google’s Sycamore.
Why collaborating on gene banking matters more than ever
The acceleration of climate change poses substantial challenges to our integrated and globalised world. Regions of the planet which are currently suitable for agriculture could see rapid warming and even desertification in the coming years, leading to conflict and political instability if solutions of the kind gene banking and associated genomic research can offer are not found. Unfortunately, you don’t need to look far to find modern examples of this process in action. It has been theorised that a severe drought which took place in Syria between 2007 and 2010, coupled with unsustainable farming practices and an over-reliance on a limited number of crop species, contributed to the emergence of the Syrian civil war.
Gene banking and connected genomic research allows us to preserve samples of existing cultivars, supporting insights which might help us to safeguard food sources and provide alternative crops should climate conditions change, mitigating the factors which led to the current instability in Syria.
Indeed, using BGI’s sequencing technology, international research teams have undertaken extensive genome studies of chickpea to devise more effective breeding strategies for a range of crops. It is hoped if these strategies are implemented global hunger could be eradicated ‘by 2030,’ according to the study published in Nature.
Further, organisations like the Global Seed Vault, INSDC, and China’s National GeneBank serve to coordinate international scientific cooperation, allowing everything from the preservation of vulnerable species to the development of novel medical treatments and beyond.
The path forward is simple. Securely expanding access to genetic information via resources like gene banks has the potential to dramatically and positively influence the pace of human progress far into the future. Quite apart from that, international scientific cooperation helps to bring communities together while encouraging us to think as once species – an essential concept if we are to meet and overcome the challenges of the 21st century.
The obstacles we face, whether climate or public health related, affect us all. That is the reality of living in a globalised and interconnected world. Svalbard’s Global Seed Vault serves as a perfect example of how scientific study can unite us in common cause, but it need not be the exception to the rule.