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Seed science

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership leads a world-class science and technology programme to address the challenges of seed banking and help save plants for the future. We work in collaboration with international partners and use cutting edge science to improve seed conservation. Our science consists of Fundamental Seed Biology (hypothesis-driven) and Applied Seed Biology and Technology (problem-solving).
Hygrometer to measure seed moisture status
Hygrometer to measure seed moisture status

Fundamental seed biology

The research group investigates challenges associated with the conservation and sustainable use of seeds, mainly using fundamental scientific approaches to understand how seeds respond to stress and the surrounding environment, how embryos undergo the developmental shift from the dormant to the germinative state, and how seed chemistry varies between species.

Seed Science image
Graphic combining the magnified image of a seed with strands of DNA

The group has a range of specialist knowledge (biotechnology, molecular biology, biochemistry, ecology, biophysics, cryobiology and population modelling) and access to modern laboratories and equipment, including gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy, high-performance liquid chromatography, differential scanning calorimetery and quantitative PCR.

Our research has strong international connections with more than 60 countries, and a post-graduate student constituency of about 20 individuals. Staff publish their findings in a range of media, including high quality scientific journals (eg New Phytologist, Plant Cell and Environment, and Journal of Experimental Botany). In addition to supporting numerous journal editorial boards, staff hold grants from the EU and research agencies.

Four themes

There are four inter-related themes which address our research in seed science:

  • Stress and Survival - Understanding why and how seeds die during storage and/or desiccation, and determining the factors involved in survival of other stresses eg salt, heat, cold.
  • Seed Futures - Identifying new, alternative crops for sustainable agriculture from neglected and under-utilised species (NUS) through the biochemical characterisation of seeds and assessment for functional and nutritional traits.
  • Frozen Planet - Development of predictive tools and low temperature protocols (cryopreservation) that optimise conditions for the successful conservation of tropical and temperate plants, especially threatened species.
  • Sleeping Beauties - Understanding the complex nature of seed dormancy of wild plant species, and assessing how seed quality and germination kinetics contribute to species resilience in a changing environment.

Applied seed biology and technology

We are always looking for new ways to improve seed conservation. Our work in seed banking technology aims to improve the techniques, equipment and methods that we use in order to share this knowledge with our partners.

Our work focuses on wild plant species. To increase the possibility of successfully germinating, growing and using seeds in the future, it is vital that seeds are collected at precisely the right time. Following collection, seeds must be cleaned and dried so they do not deteriorate. Selecting appropriate containers for storage is also important. If seeds are not fully mature when collected, post-harvest ripening methods can be used to help seeds mature and thus improve their storage potential.

We also need to know whether seeds can be safely dried. The seeds of some wild plant species are killed in the process of drying, even when they are fully mature. In seeds that can survive drying, their storage life under identical conditions varies across different plant species. Knowing how long a seed will last under seed bank conditions affects the choice of storage conditions and frequency of seed testing. Comparative longevity testing has enabled us to better understand the optimum conditions for long-term seed storage and how seeds age.

Many seeds from wild plant species have natural mechanisms which ensure that a seed will only germinate under specific environmental conditions at a particular time of year. Seed dormancy is a particular challenge when dealing with wild plant species and is consequently an important area of research at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. Our success in getting difficult seeds to germinate is based on our understanding of the environment in which we collected our seeds and the plants from which they originated. Using this knowledge, the MSB is currently developing a prototype predictor for the germination of seeds from UK plant species.