Commentary: Work together, save the planet

  • 15 March 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. 
  • Lawrence Krauss

IT SOUNDS like something out of a movie: in the furthest reaches of the Arctic - about 1000 kilometres from the North Pole - is a vault buried 150 metres below the permafrost. Inside, with a combination that no single person knows in its entirety, is a storage locker that may one day save the world, or a large part of it.

Late last month the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. The facility is nothing less than a Noah's ark of plants for the 21st century, aiming to preserve the world's crop biodiversity while we still have a fighting chance.

The first boxes deposited in the bank, which permafrost helps to keep at a chilly -18 °C, consist of 268,000 samples, containing about 100 million seeds from more than 100 countries. The vault will ultimately hold about 4.5 million samples. Though many seeds can't survive long periods in cold storage and will need to be periodically replanted, it is hoped that some, like sorghum, may be viable for thousands of years.

As we decode the mysteries of DNA, genetically modifying crops for pest resistance and bacteria to produce vaccines has become routine. I expect our ability to manipulate life will increase exponentially and may soon extend to the engineering of new species to suit our changing environment, or to creating whole new life forms from scratch.

For some people, this prospect is terrifying. It has been the stuff of horror stories ever since Frankenstein. But we can approach such developments in two ways: by condemning them, which provides only psychic relief, or by preparing for them so that society, and the planet, can benefit.

In the past century perhaps three-quarters of the world's crop strains have been lost. As the global climate changes, this loss looks set to continue. The seed bank is an excellent example of forward thinking that will help us to counteract it.

An incredible diversity of life has colonised virtually every nook and cranny of this planet, including plants that can withstand extremes of climate, from freezing gales to hot, arid deserts. We might become experts at manipulating DNA, but it will be a long time before our supercomputers can compete with 4.5 billion years of evolution.

That is why it is crucial to preserve this store of natural knowledge. As populations grow and the climate changes, scientists and farmers will be able to draw on seeds from around the world that can thrive under adverse conditions - though precisely who will have access to the seeds is still not clear.

The purpose of the seed bank is heartening, but the international enterprise that brought it to fruition is even more so. The remote laboratories of science fiction movies typically create doomsday devices or evil life forms, but here the world has come together to build something for the good of humanity.

The world has come together and built something for the good of humanity

Now what can we do, as a global civilisation, to harness knowledge in a similarly concerted way? We will have to find out. For the first time in our history the environmental challenges we are facing - as a result of our own activity - are global in reach and it is hard to imagine how they will be met without equally global solutions.

A virtue of science is that it is a truly international enterprise. Just consider the thousands of physicists from scores of countries, speaking dozens of languages, who have built the colossal experiments due to begin this year at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. How we cope with the global threats to come will depend upon our courage, our foresight and our ability to harness the power of science to serve the public good.

Read all of Lawrence Krauss' columns