Saving For The Future, Seed By Seed

An almost hidden driveway in suburban Portland, Ore., doesn't lead to another million-dollar mansion, but instead, to an old house, a six-acre garden and priceless project: saving part of the world's fragile ecosystem one plant at a time.

"Not since the age of dinosaurs have things been going extinct at the rate they are now," says Ed Guerrant, director of the Berry Botanical Center.

The dinosaurs couldn't be saved, but the pale larkspur, Western lily and Nelson's checker-mallow can... by collecting their seeds before they go extinct.

"We can store seeds and keep them alive for tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of years," says Guerrant.

The seeds are stored at the Berry Botanic Seed Bank, which is a freezer inside a vault.


Hughes Blogs: Seeds Of Life

Right now up to one-fifth of the Earth's plants are in trouble. Fluctuating temperatures from global warming means some plants that need cold conditions are too warm, and those that need rain aren't getting it. Other plants are being pushed to extinction by too much building. But why should we care?

"Everything that we do depends on plants and it just makes sense to preserve as much of that as we can," says Andrea Raven, a botanist at the Berry Botanical Center.

Many plants have been the source for medicine that cures disease. Take the rosy periwinkle, which is native to Madigascar. Before its properties were discovered, only 10 percent of children with leukemia lived. But from the plant, scientists created a compound that helped increase the survival rate.

"With the compound, the rate has now gone up to 95 percent," Raven says. "Who knows what else is out there in nature's pharmacy."

Today, botanists can be found re-growing populations of endangered plants all over the northwest. Across the Atlantic. just outside London, England's Millennium Seed Bank Project has built a towering fortress to house all the world's plant life.

"We will have 10 percent of the world's seeds by 2010 and we would like to go on and have a quarter of the world's species by 2020," says Paul Smith, director of the Millennium Seed Bank Project.

One in six of all wild plants are used for medicine. One in 10 are used for food, especially in developing countries. The need to bank seeds worldwide is urgent.

Even for the appropriately named "ugly lettuce" in Oregon. The pitiful looking plant might have some very important value.

"Exactly," Raven says. "We could find the cure for AIDS in this or some other function, you don't know until things are explored."

A billion seeds have been banked worldwide. It's an environmental savings account where each deposit could mean a cure for disease.


Tuesday, in part two of our series, we'll look at a promising new cancer drug. Believe it or not, it comes from dirt.