Each year massive economic losses are suffered by farmers and the seed trade alike due to poor seed quality. These losses are partly due to inadequate storage conditions, and are predicted to be exacerbated by climate change. A team of European scientists has committed themselves to unravel how environmental stresses to the mother plant will impact upon seed quality, and if seed storage conditions prior to the next sowing can be improved to enhance seed quality. The â‚¬3 million project will be coordinated by the University of Innsbruck, Austria.
Every seed has a life of its own. Information received during its development on the mother plant determines its quality: how long a seed can be stored, if it will be dormant (see below), if it will germinate readily after storage and if it will grow into a healthy, vigorous new plant. Seed quality is further influenced by storage conditions, and is essentially important to agriculture and industry. It has been estimated that yield loss from major cereals due to rising temperatures between 1981 and 2002 was $5 billion per year. Importantly, seed wastage resulting from sub-optimal seed performance undermines food security and livelihoods. High-quality seed and a capability to store them adequately are also pivotal to safeguard the seeds of wild plant species required for the conservation of plant biodiversity. “Seed quality is determined by highly complex interactions between biochemical, biophysical and molecular processes within the seed, which are only very poorly understood” explains Ilse Kranner, Professor of Plant Physiology at the Austrian University of Innsbruck, who is the coordinator of the EU-project EcoSeed. In this project, three crop species, barley, sunflower and cabbage will be studied together with the model plant Arabidopsis, to see how drought and elevated temperatures suffered by the mother plant, impact upon seed quality. As a next step, the scientists want to find out how changes in temperature, humidity and oxygen concentrations during storage further affect seed viability, storability, and seedling vigour. The knowledge gained from the detailed study of the above four plant species will then be transferred to wild plant species to the benefit of conservation projects. Eleven renowned European teams participate in the EcoSeed project. Among them are the Seed Conservation Department of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, maintaining the largest ex situ genebank for wild plant species globally, and the Federal ex situ Genebank of Germany, the IPK Gatersleben, which is the largest crop genebank in the EU. “EcoSeed combines aspects of food security and conservation, and we are lucky to have top-class scientists in the consortium” says Ilse Kranner.