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Abstract - BioScience

Current extinction rates of plant and animal species are estimated to be as much as 100- to 1000-fold higher than during the recent geological past, a phenomenon that conservation biologists attribute to wide-scale destruction of natural habitats (Pimm et al. 1995). As natural habitats continue to disappear, there have been increasing efforts to stockpile wild plant species in large, centralized seed banks—a form of conservation that falls under the general category of ex situ conservation, or conservation outside the native habitat.

Seed banks are facilities where seeds are stored under cold and dry conditions. This prolongs seed viability and thereby preserves plants for future use. Traditionally, seed banks have played their largest role in the conservation of domesticated plant varieties (Plucknett 1987), though some agricultural seed banks such as those maintained by US National Plant Germplasm System have kept collections of nondomesticated species, particularly the wild relatives of crop plants. During the past two decades many botanical gardens began to establish seed banks for the purpose of conservation. Most noteworthy is the Millennium Seed Bank Project at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in Great Britain (Smith et al. 1998). This massive undertaking aims to stockpile 10% of the world's plant diversity, targeting species of the dry tropics, as well as all plant species native to Great Britain. Similar, though less ambitious, efforts are under way in North America, sponsored by the Center for Plant Conservation at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and regional initiatives (e.g., the New England Plant Conservation Program) are being carried out in many parts of the world. As well, over 700 botanical gardens maintain seed collections of mostly wild, ornamental, medicinal, and in some cases crop and crop-related species (FAO 1996).