After their arrival, seeds are painstakingly cleaned to reduce their bulk for storage and to improve the quality of the batch. Some of this work can be done by machines, but much of it is done by hand by volunteers.
Initial germination tests are done for batches with over a hundred seeds. And a sample is X-rayed, to see whether there any problems that aren’t obvious from the surface. If you look closely at the scan shown above (click through for a larger image), you can see that some of the beans are infested. Batches of seeds may be rejected if the quality is not high enough, or they may be sent back for more sorting.
All of this preparatory work is done at ground level. It is only once the seeds have been identified, cleaned and dried that they are taken downstairs to the vault. The vault is divided into several cold rooms, with the antechamber being kept cool and dry so that the seeds don’t pick up any moisture as they are handled. It’s not a nice environment for working in for hours on end – it’s very dehydrating!
The computer allocates space to batches of seed to maximise the amount of seeds that can be stored. All seeds are double-wrapped in glass jars, and labelled with a reference number rather than their name. The number of seeds saved varies considerably – a tiny jar of orchid seeds could contain tens of millions 🙂
The cold rooms are divided into an active store and a base store – short-term and long-term access. There are 4 rooms in the vault, with 2 in current use, and space for 9 more off this antechamber.
The whole process costs around £2000 per species, although it depends a bit on whether any of the sorting and cleaning work can be done in the country of origin. The MSB is serious about health and safety – both for its human workers and for the preservation of the seeds themselves. No seeds can be accepted into the MSB for which international trade is prohibited, for whatever reason.
When I visited 2 years ago, the MSB had stored 97% of the UK’s ‘native’ species. They only accept wild species (crop plants being catered for elsewhere), although many of those may be gathered for food or medicine in their native habitats.
Even with the seeds safely stored away, that’s not the end of the story. To ensure their long term survival they need to be taken out and checked for germination, which is the subject of my third and final post on my visit to the MSB, so watch this space 🙂