Sowing seeds for the future

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Carolyn O'Grady reports on the Millennium Seed Bank - a pilot scheme involving two schools - which is a response to the increasing threat to the world's plant varieties

Recently Kathryn Bell, head of biology and science co-ordinator at Ardingly College, West Sussex, took delivery of a large box. In it, apart from an environment chamber containing a solution of lithium chloride, Petri dishes, masks and other equipment, were vials containing 10 species of seeds. These are the resources that will enable students at the school to undertake high-level scientific research with Kew's Millennium Seed Bank.

Ardingly is one of two schools piloting the project (the other is Mexborough School, South Yorkshire), which is particularly aimed at those studying the 2006 GCSE science syllabus and AS and A2. The scheme is now looking for 30 more schools to take part beginning in September.

The Millennium Seed Bank is a global conservation initiative developed in response to increasing threats to the world's plant species. It aims to collect and conserve seeds from 10 per cent of the world's flora (24,000 species) by the end of 2009. Initially these will be from the UK, but thereafter the lion's share will come from the world's dry lands.

Most seeds in this ark, based at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex, are stored at -20C after drying to a low moisture content. However, different seeds survive for different lengths of time in these conditions. And, says Dr Fiona Hay who heads the seed bank's viability testing: "We don't know how long that will be". A study which would determine this was beyond the seed bank's current resources, so schools are being recruited to do the job.

Using their results the seed bank can make decisions on the environment in which the seeds are preserved. "We're trying to duplicate the conditions in a multi-million pound laboratory; but it won't cost schools any money. It's their time we want," says Sue Hunt, research and development education officer for Kew and SAPS (Science and Plants for Schools). The kit also contains a PowerPoint presentation for teacher, students and laboratory technicians on what to do at each stage.

The students' task will be to gradually raise the temperature and moisture content of the atmosphere surrounding the seeds to accelerate their ageing.

Then every few days they will check to see if samples of seeds are still alive by attempting to germinate them. Eventually, using an already proven formula, they will be able to work out how long seed species will survive in the seed bank's conditions. Students will also be encouraged to suggest what causes the differences in lifespan. Is it, for example, habitat or climate? The project will last around one and a quarter terms.

The seed bank aims to raise awareness of plant science in schools and also to give students an understanding of why it is necessary to maintain a genetic seed bank; an awareness of the challenges faced by such a collection and an opportunity to be acknowledged in a scientific publication.

Ardingly College is involving its ASA2 and GCSE students in the project.

"Too often with investigations students know what the results should be,"

says Kathryn Bell. "With this they won't know the results until the end.

This brings something real to the curriculum." The school also wants students to appreciate what the seed bank is and why it is necessary. She hopes that discussions will involve other subject areas including geography and citizenship: "I want them to ask questions about the science and the reasons behind it."

* Schools interested in taking part in the project should email: Tel: Sue Hunt on 01444 894312

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