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The Noah's Ark of Plants and Flowers

from Smithsonian

Down a spiral staircase, deep inside the Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex, an hour or so from London, you'll find the heart of the facility. Behind a massive airlock door you enter four 516-square-foot cold-room chambers, maintained at minus-20 degrees Celsius--sufficiently frigid to preserve botanical treasure, depending on the species, for 500 years.

Dozens of shipments arrive weekly from every corner of the globe--seeds air-freighted from far-flung locations: the deserts of Kyrgyzstan, the Dominican Republic's tropical valleys, the alpine meadows of China, the plains of Oklahoma. In more than 50 countries, hundreds of researchers are engaged in one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of field science: The goal is to collect 25 percent of the planet's 400,000 plant species by 2020.

Scientists are racing against time: 100,000 species of flora--imperiled by habitat destruction, overharvesting and climate change--are threatened with extinction. "Even if we know that plants are being lost in the wild," says Paul Smith, head of seed conservation, "if we can get them into the seed bank, we can regenerate them in the future."

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