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Searching for the wildest strawberries

It has been a long journey for the latest shipment of seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The vault, built into a Norwegian mountain near the North Pole, is the final defense for agriculture in the face of growing populations, a changing climate and rising threats to food security.

And the vault now contains the world's most diverse collection of crops as the shipment, which included a wild strawberry species painstakingly collected from a remote Russian archipelago, brought its numbers to more than half a million.

"We are losing diversity in a very quiet way," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which partners with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center in Sweden to operate the vault. "Diversity is a public good; it belongs to everybody."

Climate change is expected to negatively affect agriculture, with crops in parts of the world having to deal with warmer temperatures, droughts and rising salinity of water. The first defense is to save seeds that have traits to cope with these challenges. And often, the wild relatives of domesticated crops show greater adaptability.

Scientists can go to extreme lengths to obtain wild species believed to have greater genetic diversity. Recently, Andrey Sabitov, a senior scientist at the Vavilov Research Institute in Russia, hiked into the bear-infested wilderness on the remote island of Sakhalin, Russia. After three days, he arrived at the Atsonupuri volcano, climbed a third of the way up the flank and found what he was looking for: the Fragaria iturupensis strawberry, rumored to be an ancestor of the American berry.

Why wild relatives remain important

It had originally been discovered by an intrepid Japanese explorer in 1929, and was named by a world-renowned German strawberry taxonomist in 1973. It was this taxonomist, G√ľnter Staudt, who revealed the precise location of the strawberry to Sabitov.

Lineage is important for crop lines because earlier versions of a seed may have a gene pool that could make them more adaptable in harsher climates. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service collaborated with the Russians to collect strawberry seeds from the volcano. The story was recounted in an e-mail sent around within the USDA.

Analysis later showed that the Sakhalin strawberry was not the ancestor of the American variety. But it had 10 sets of chromosomes that made it a genetic resource in its own right. Copies of the seed have been placed in Svalbard.

"In general, what's missing a lot are wild relatives of crops we are so much dependent on," said Ola Westengen, who operates the vault. "Even wheat, maize have wild forefathers of domesticated crops."

Efforts to collect these wild relatives have been undertaken by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, he said. The vault is meant to serve as the last repository for seeds and as a final go-to place for countries in case disaster strikes local seed banks. And unlike at other gene banks, daily transactions do not happen at Svalbard.

Frozen assets secure plant diversity

The vault is built into Arctic permafrost in Norway that is likely to remain frozen for hundreds of years, according to Fowler. Getting to the center requires a flight to a remote Norwegian village near the Arctic Circle where polar bears roam. Its remote location makes it safe from political or geological threats.

"Some of the regional seed banks are highly vulnerable," said Fowler. "At a regular basis, collections and varieties become extinct."

War has destroyed banks located in Afghanistan, Rwanda and Iraq in the past. Floods have damaged seed banks in the Philippines, according to Fowler. Overall, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75 percent of biodiversity in crops has been lost in the past decade.

"In some cases, we are doing well, but in other cases, we have huge room for improvement," said David Ellis, curator at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, which is storing more than 40,000 samples in the vault. The USDA, which has its own duplicate repository at Fort Collins, Colo., is storing seeds at Svalbard to promote greater global cooperation and participation of developing countries at risk in the effort, said Ellis.

'We inherit nature's work'

The biological diversity of crops can be astounding. For example, there are more than 200,000 varieties of wheat in the world. Many are not domesticated, and they may contain many advantageous traits, according to Fowler. Since climate change will raise temperatures and cause droughts in certain parts of the world, having a wider gene pool to choose from may be essential.

Many of the traits have been lost from years of domestication in farmers' fields. The variety of wheat that makes up a loaf of bread today would be different from the wheat used 40 years ago, said Fowler. Local gene banks can serve as repositories for seeds that lose their prevalence in agriculture.

Scientists often draw on these banks to develop newer varieties that can cope with the demands of changing agricultural conditions. Farmers can also request more drought-tolerant varieties from their local banks.

"Twenty years from now, temperatures will increase," said Fowler. "We inherit nature's work. This could be a cheap solution to food security, climate change issues."