Seed snapshot for science

Project Baseline

Project Baseline is caching seeds for scientists of the future. Collected largely from plants native to the United States, the project captures a snapshot of the range of genetic diversity in and among plant populations and species today. Its seeds will be made available to researchers of the future studying how environmental shifts like climate change alter the genes and characteristics of plants in the wild. 

Much is known about how plants change the timing of life cycle events like bud burst and flowering. But how evolutionary processes respond to upcoming environmental change is virtually unknown. 

The Project Baseline collection—now comprising  more than 8,000,000 seeds from 750 populations representing 50 wild species nationwide—will enable science to illuminate that black box. The seeds are being preserved under optimal conditions for long-term survival in the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (Fort Collins, CO).  To date, 52 populations from six species have been collected from NRS sites in an effort led by UC Santa Barbara postdoctoral scholar Heather Schneider. Nationwide, more than 350 populations in seven states are now part of the collection.

Project Seedbank
The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is among the species represented in the Project Baseline collection. Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu

Researchers will be able to compare today’s seeds against those collected in the future. In this way, they should be able to detect genetic shifts in wild populations that occur in response to environmental perturbations, including climate change, altered land use practices, fragmentation, and the invasion of exotic weeds. Biologists will be able to germinate genetically representative populations from the past right next to plants from current populations. This will enable them to assess expressed, or phenotypic, changes that crop up in future decades. The Project Baseline collection will be accessible to researchers beginning in 2018.

Potential uses of this “resurrection” approach in the study of plant ecology and evolution as well as the ecological and evolutionary significance of geographic variation in wild plant species have already been explored in several publications.

Project Baseline collaborators include Susan Mazer of UC Santa Barbara, Julie Etterson and Ruth Shaw of the University of Minnesota, and Steve Franks of Fordham University. They received a 4-year, $1.2 million NSF grant for the project in 2011. 

Project Baseline also contributes to UC’s effort to understand how climate change is affecting California’s natural ecosystems. The Institute for the Study of Ecological and Evolutionary Climate Impacts (ISEECI) is studying historic and future changes in the environment linked to climate change at the reserves of the NRS. Launched in 2015, ISEECI involves faculty and students from campuses across the University of California.  

Related links

The Lazarus Plants: Why 3 Million Seeds Are Being Sent to Cold Storage for 50 Years, Atlas Obscura

Banking seeds for future evolutionary scientists, Science 

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