NordGen staff in Coal mine #3 with the wooden crate containing 30 year old glass tubes with test seeds, from the left Fredrik Olsson, Lise Lykke Steffensen and Åsmund Asdal.
The so called NordGen 100 year experiment is located in the permafrost in the abandoned Coal Mine #3 outside Longyearbyen. Just recently, 30 years old test seeds of 30 crop species and varieties were taken out of the mine for analysis.
Early in the 1980-ties cooperation on conservation of security copies of the Nordic seed collection was established between Nordic Gene Bank (now NordGen) and the Norwegian mining company Store norske Spitsbergen kullkompani. This back-up collection can be considered as a pilot and inspiration for the construction of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault more than 20 years later. At the same time, for the purpose of investigating longevity of seeds of different crops in permafrost at -3,7 oC, seed material was placed in the same steel container as the Nordic seed collection in Mine #3.
During the first 20 years, seeds were taken out for testing every 2,5 years.
Later, germination tests have been carried out every fifth year. Still wooden crates filled with seeds in sealed glass tubes are stored in the mine and marked with year numbers up to 2086, when the last samples for testing will be brought out of the mine.
Optimal conditions for conservation of seeds are assumed to be at -18 oC, which is used by most gene banks, among them NordGen. The 100 year experiment was started with the purpose to clarify how long seeds can survive at low cost permafrost storage, without energy supplies or artificial cooling.
In addition to germination rates, the survival of seed borne fungi and virus that can impact germination is investigated.
All species in the project are crops commonly cultivated in Nordic agriculture and horticulture. Due to variation in seed quality and longevity between varieties, two varieties of each crop are included, varieties that were commonly used when the project started in 1986.
The crop species that are analyzed are barley (Hordeum vulgare), wheat (Triticum aestivum), rye (Secale cereale) salad (Lactuca sativa), rye grass (Lolium perenne), timothy (Phleum pratense), Kentucky blue grass (Poa pratensis), red clover (Trifolium pratense), pea (Pisum sativum), beet (Beta vulgaris), oil rape seed (Brassica napus), cucumber (Cucumis sativus), onion (Allium cepa), carrot (Daucus carota) and cauliflower (Brassica oleacea var botrytis).
The seeds are stored in sealed glass tubes, which was the mostly used method for long term conservation of seeds in gene banks during the last century. Currently, gene banks conserve seeds long term in plastic layered and sealed aluminum pouches. For both methods, it is crucial to dry the seeds before packing. The seeds in the glass tubes in the mine in Longyearbyen have a moisture content of 3-5%.
Kimen Seed laboratory in Ås in Norway carries out the germination tests and fungi contamination. Presence of virus in salad seeds is investigated at NIBIO (Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research). Results from the 100 year experiment have so far not been published. NordGen intends to compile a report when the seeds from 30 years storage have been analyzed.