What Are Seed Gene Banks and How Do They Work?

Seed gene banks exist throughout the world. As you might guess, their purpose is to catalog, store, and protect as many varieties of plants as possible. These banks are useful to plant breeders trying to find crop species that are more drought or disease resistant, for example. They also provide a resource for countries in recovery after natural or man-made catastrophes. For example, after the tsunami in Malaysia in 2004, rice growers were able to obtain salt-tolerant varieties of rice not normally gown in that area. However, many seed banks are located in areas of the world where they are susceptible to destruction. Seed banks in Afghanistan and Iraq have been ransacked.

A consortium of organizations has collaborated in order to address this problem and provide a centralized, stable, reliable site for preserving and protecting world crop seeds. On February 28, 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault began operating. The New York Times and ScienceDaily both reported the event. The Times article, Near Arctic, Seed Vault Is a Fort Knox of Food, is accompanied by numerous photographs and a map indicating the location of the vault. The ScienceDaily article, Thousands of Crop Varieties Depart For Arctic Seed Vault, contains one photograph and numerous links to related articles. Both articles describe the project, who is involved with the project, and why.

Did you know there are about 1,200 varieties of banana plants worldwide? Only about half have been preserved. Other food crops exhibit thousands of varieties as well. The Times notes that, in the United States, “eighty percent of maize types that existed in the 1930s are gone.” The rapid loss of crop plants on the planet heightens the need to preserve as many as possible at this time for their potential in serving future generations.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) maintains and coordinates seed gene banks around the world, encompassing 600,000 plant varieties. Its goal is to back up all known varieties of useful plant varieties in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

The National Science Education Standards are sometimes criticized for the lack of emphasis on plant biology. However, the Life Science Content Standard for grades 5-8 allows for elaboration on plant biology in many contexts. There are five big ideas within this content standard, none of which excludes plant biology: structure and function in living systems; reproduction and heredity; regulation and behavior; populations and ecosystems; diversity and adaptations of organisms. Teachers should strive to present instruction inclusive of all kinds of living things with respect to these five big ideas, including crop plants.

Entertain student estimates on the number of varieties of bananas, tomatoes, maize, beans, and so on. Present them with statistics reflecting the actual number of known varieties for the crops you choose. Ask what might differentiate one variety from another. Lead students to the idea of differences in optimal growing conditions and variety in tolerance with respect to things like drought, water quality, disease resistance, and yield. Ideally, you may be conducting an ongoing activity in which students grow, observe, and compare food crop varieties for some of these variables.

Can students think of any reasons to try and preserve this variety? Intended for educators, the article Plant Content in the National Science Education Standards lists several reasons for preserving plant biodiversity by virtue of the plant-derived products we depend on to maintain our lifestyle.

Students might recall the tsunami of 2004 or Hurricane Katrina. Ask them if crops that once thrived in those areas could be expected to thrive just as they did before the disasters. Lead them to the idea of salt residue left in soil. Drops of salt water on a paper towel allowed to dry will provide evidence to help students understand soil could be altered by salt water washing over it. Fresh celery or raw potato allowed to sit in salt water demonstrates the effect of salt on plants. Remind students of the Asian rice growers in the ScienceDaily article who found salt-resistant rice in the seed banks.

Imagine your students harvested 300 seeds from plants grown this year at school and you found a way to preserve them. One hundred years from now, students find those seeds and plant them in a natural setting. What do your students predict the outcomes would be? Will the seeds germinate? Will the plants thrive? Will they flower and produce seeds? What rationale do students provide to support their predictions? Lead them to understand the environment will most likely be altered from what it is now. There may be new pests, viruses, pathogens, and competitors. Tie the discussion to natural selection. Is it safe to assume that seeds preserved today can be planted 100 or 200 years from now with great confidence in their success? Then why preserve them? How should they be managed?

Recall the name “gene bank.” These banks can be conceived of as genetic repositories, not simply seed preservation sites. That means there is potential to isolate and manipulate useful genes from preserved seeds. Thus, it may not be necessary that the preserved seeds thrive but that they lend themselves to gene isolation. Periodic germination of preserved seeds followed by collection of new seeds may simulate the natural selection process and increase the probability that preserved seeds will thrive if germinated hundreds of years from now.

What about plants, such as bananas, whose seeds do not preserve well or are not reliable with respect to germination for various reasons. How can those plant species be preserved? There is no pat answer to this question; thus it is an excellent question for student inquiry. Students may propose things like cryogenics of tissues for later vegetative propagation or genomic sequencing for incorporation into some kind of surrogate seed embryo later.

Here are some additional resources from the Middle School Portal 2 related to issues of plant biodiversity and plant breeding: Thinking Green? Grow Your Own! and Seeds of the World: Journey to Forever.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published March 7, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 3/27/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

How Many Bacteria Species Can Coexist on a Single Hand? (And do girls really have cooties?)

Sounds like a riddle, but it’s not trivial. We’ll get back to that in a minute. First consider the scenario: The class arrives from physical education. Today’s activity was mat ball, a variation of dodge ball involving lots of kids and lots of contact with balls and mats. They’re pumped, a little sweaty and out of breath, and one or two are a few seconds late—probably not because they were washing their hands! Would you have students wash their hands in this scenario? Not likely. It’s just not part of the lesson plan.

We accept a certain lack of sanitation mostly because it’s not feasible to allow 26-30 kids to wash their hands several times a day. We try to take solace in the hand sanitizers, though rumor has it there’s no substitute for warm water, soap and a minute of scrubbing.

Low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Each individual bacterium is oblong shaped. Photo by Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU. Wikimedia Commons.

So what’s the big deal? Most bacteria on our skin are harmless or beneficial, right? How many could there be anyway? Well, CBCnews.ca recently published a story, Women lead men in bacteria types, hands down  that might surprise you. Researchers were surprised to find the incredible number of different bacteria species found among 51 college students’ hands and the very low number of species shared by all students. Further, there was a difference between left and right hands. And finally, there was a significant difference between men and women.

According to the news article,

They [researchers] identified 4,742 species of bacteria overall, only five of which were on every hand . . . The average hand harboured 150 species of bacteria. Not only did individuals have few types of bacteria in common, the left and right hands of the same individual shared only about 17 per cent of the same bacteria types . . .

Researchers suspect differences between left-and right-hand bacteria diversity have to do with each hand’s interactions with environment that can alter the hand’s conditions in terms of oil or salinity, for example. Differences between men and women might have to do with hormone production or slight variations in pH. Researchers commented that, for the subjects involved in this study, hand washing did not appear to remove the bacteria. It is important to note the study did not measure mass of bacteria present or population sizes for each species, only the diversity of species present.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

The National Science Education Standards Content Standard F states:

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of

  • Personal health
  • Populations, resources, and environments
  • Natural hazards
  • Risks and benefits
  • Science and technology in society

The ideas in this news article connect to the bullets above. The following discussion highlights the ideas in the list.

Ask students if they’ve ever had a bacterial infection. What caused it? What are bacteria? Many will state they are harmful, disease causing germs. How common do they believe bacteria are? Are they in contact with any right now? How do they protect themselves against bacterial disease? Lead students to understand that many kinds of bacteria are harmless and, in fact, beneficial. Our digestion is aided by bacteria, for example. Bacteria are used in the production of yogurt and cottage cheese, among other foods. You can show them photomicrographs indicating bacteria are distinct cells, but quite small. Bacteria impact our personal health in both positive and negative ways.

How are bacteria connected to populations, resources and environments? Remind students that a group of the same kind of bacteria living in the same area is a population. Can a human hand be an adequate environment with resources to support a bacteria population? How many kinds of bacteria do you think might be able to coexist on a single human hand? Entertain all students’ guesses. Share only the numbers from the story with them. How do their guesses compare with the numbers reported?

Try some true or false questions:

1. There is no difference in the kinds of bacteria found on the same person’s right and left hand.

2. Men and women have the same kinds of bacteria on their hands.

3. Among a group of people, there is a high number of different kinds of bacteria that all people share.

Share the rest of the findings reported in the article. Ask students to generate inferences to account for the variation reported. What questions can they generate related to the findings? What kind of tests do they think would be good to conduct next and why?

You can connect the idea of natural hazards to changes in bacteria populations if you care to. After a flood for example, the biggest threat is disease due to polluted water, from overflow of sewage mixing with drinking-water supplies. At times like these, the bacteria populations found on flood-ravaged persons’ hands can be expected to differ from those found under normal conditions.

What are the risks and benefits involved in controlling bacteria through various methods: sanitation, sterilization, irradiation, and antibiotics, for example? What are the risks and benefits of using helpful bacteria to control or minimize the occurrence of harmful bacteria in food?

What role does technology play in public health policies regarding available vaccinations, medicines, and public education campaigns? See the Centers for Disease Control webpage for additional ideas and information at http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/guidelines/guidelines_topic_bacterial.htm

To find lessons and activities that would support this topic of study, please search the MSP2 Educational Digital Library – http://www.msteacher2.org/page/search-the-msp2-collection-of?q=bacteria&action=Search. Terms such as germs or bacteria will get you started.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published November 10, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 2/29/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.