human nature
future proof

A new research facility is preserving Australia’s

plant life – one seed at a time

Two rectangular mirrored structures jut futuristically out of the shrubbery, gleaming in the midday sun and reflecting the surrounding landscape. Joined off-center to form an asymmetrical cross, the building is bookended by a patch of endangered Cumberland Plain woodland to the north and a nursery garden to the south. And its position among the local flora is appropriate: this is PlantBank, tucked into a quiet corner of the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan, an hour’s drive west of Sydney – a building dedicated to the research and conservation of Australia’s indigenous plants.

More than five percent of Australia’s plant species are endangered. “Plants make up the fabric of our everyday lives yet, somehow, protecting them is not a priority,” says John Siemon, a scientist and PlantBank’s project manager. “They clean the water we drink, the air we breathe, clothe and feed us and help us build many of the structures we live or work in.”

Until recently, Siemon and his team of 15 scientists and horticulturists were working in two agricultural farm sheds, he says, “doing things you’d do in a hospital but with plants.” Government funding and private and corporate sponsorship enabled the AU$20 million research center to open in October 2013. Its goal? To one day hold in a seed repository specimens of all of Australia’s 25,000 seed-bearing native plants.
“In most species we are yet to unlock the secrets of seeds that may hold potential for food, fiber or pharmaceutical products essential for our survival on the planet,” Siemon says. “In the meantime, this is the ultimate insurance policy against destruction and loss.”

Cleaning ensures seeds
are the highest quality
Plant tissues are cryogenically
stored at sub-zero temperatures
as low as -196 degrees Celsius
in the bank
Wollemi pine

The Wollemi pine was considered extinct until a ranger discovered it in a national park on Sydney’s doorstep back in 1994. It’s one of the rarest trees in the world, with fewer than 100 existing in the wild, but using cuttings, PlantBank has established a living collection to ensure the longevity of the species.

Seeds are vacuum packed and
stored at -20 degrees Celsius
PlantBank’s sleek architectural
lines combine concrete, glass and
reflective stainless steel

Designed by Australian architects BVN, the building responds to the “strong natural context” of the 416 hectares (about 1,030 acres) of surrounding botanical garden, and uses low-maintenance and fire-resistant materials such as glass and steel to integrate the building with the landscape.

Intermittent sections of the exterior walls are overlaid with reflective stainless-steel panels that mimic the pattern of the woodland and create a balance between built and natural. Materials are used to support sustainable outcomes – mirrors, for example, bounce sunlight into dark recesses of the building, reducing the need for electricity; and a simple air gap, between the structure’s outer wall and inner skin, traps and cools hot air, deflecting heat and helping save on air-conditioning. The use of concrete and high-density Australian blackbutt hardwood timber is a final protective measure against bushfires, while mesh panels allow scientists to open windows without fearing insect invasion.

Inside the public wing of the building, the space is open and democratic, geared as much toward the visitor’s experience as scientific research. (The private wing comprises offices, a library and lecture theaters.) Scientists work at impressive Leica microscopes in glazed laboratories, sharing their processes with public onlookers in a gallery-like setup. It is here that, once gathered from the bush, seeds are cleaned, tested for viability (to make sure pods aren’t empty or ravaged by caterpillars), and then put through a series of germination tests to ensure they are capable of sprouting before being stored away. For stubborn seeds that don’t bud in usual ways (plants that require specific amounts of warmth, say, or moisture), intriguing techniques can help the process. The heat-sensitive Banksia, for example, responds to “bushfire in a bottle”, Siemon says. “Much like vanilla essence, we can mimic a bushfire by burning sticks and leaves and bubbling them through water. The capsules react to the chemicals and open to produce seeds, without the need for actual heat or flame.” By exploring and documenting the various triggers for germination, the team can build important references for growing individual plant species in the future.

in the bank
Australian Terrestrial Orchid

An endangered species whose seeds are incapable of germinating by themselves, this species relies instead on a fungus that grows in soil to break down leaf litter and feed it to the seed, triggering germination. PlantBank has isolated that key fungal strand and packed it together with the orchid seed to create a new synthetic seed capable of growing itself.

Seed quality is verified
through germination tests
and other experimentation
Plant tissues can be grown
aseptically in glass jars
Visitors can learn more
through extensive
throughout PlantBank
Seeds are stored inside
a purpose-built seed vault

The seed vault is the heart of the operation. Identifiable to visitors by its intense blue lighting – “a bit of drama for the public,” Siemon says – it contains a series of airtight cold and dry storerooms, and is home to 100 million dried seeds (taken from 1.2 million specimens) hermetically sealed in small foil packets. Temperatures range here from -20 to 4 degrees Celsius, depending on whether or not the seed will shortly be developed in the nursery or stored. Seeds intolerant to this form of storage travel through the cryogenic system, which features temperatures as low as -196 degrees Celsius. “If we get the combination of drying and temperature right for each species,” Siemon says, “we can extend the life of the seed by several hundred years, sometimes by several thousand.” The vault currently contains only 20 percent of Australia’s native flora; Siemon and his team aim to have samples of every species within the next 25 years.

For some plants, including the Australian lilly pilly tree, extracting and storing seeds isn’t easy. Many specimens are rainforest species, unsuited to the cold, dry conditions of the vault. Recalcitrant species are grown in sterile environments similar to intensive care units. And it’s not just seeds – here sections of plants are stored and grown in jars that line walls under hot, bright lights. It is an operation that involves tissue being regrown into complete plants. “Down here, we don’t necessarily need the whole seed,” Siemon says. “We can take the leaf or a stem and regrow it. It’s a bit like cutting off my left hand and growing another one of me – something medical science is still trying to do, but which we’ve been doing since the 1950s.”

PlantBank is a learning center, and Siemon doesn’t want his plants locked up. Students are invited to watch and learn from scientists, interact with different species and processes and use the site as an outdoor classroom. “People buy a bag of mint in the supermarket but have no idea where it came from,” Siemon says. “There’s a disconnect between the seed and the fully grown plant we all recognize. We want to engage students with that first level.”
By inspiring future generations to see the potential in seeds, this scientist and his team are on “a mission to make plants cool again.”

They just might succeed.