Seed Bank

Packing seeds for cold storage at the USDA genebank (photo: L. Guarino, by kind permission of USDA genebank in Ames, Iowa, USA)
A cold storage room (photo: ILRI)

Page compiled by: Bioversity International/ILRI, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Alexandra Jorge); ILRI, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Jean Hanson) including information extracted from: Rao NK, Hanson J, Dulloo ME, Ghosh K, Nowel D and Larinde M. 2006. Manual of seed handling in genebanks. Handbooks for Genebanks No. 8. Bioversity International, Rome, Italy. 147pp.

Storing seeds using cold storage

Storing genetic diversity as seed is the best researched, most widely used and most convenient method of ex situ conservation. Much is known about the optimum treatment of the seeds of most major crops. Requirements include adequate drying (seed moisture contents as low as 3% for oily seeds and 5% or more for starchy seeds); appropriate storage temperature (-18°C is recommended for long-term storage); and careful production of quality seed to ensure the greatest longevity (storing them in hermetically-sealed containers).

Orthodox seeds

It is the principal conservation method for species producing orthodox seeds that withstand desiccation to low moisture content and storage at very low temperatures. Most arable and forage species, and many tree species, produce seeds in this category.

Recalcitrant seeds

Several important tropical and sub-tropical tree species produce seeds that do not survive desiccation and cannot tolerate low temperatures, and which are therefore not easy to store; these are known as recalcitrant seeds. Techniques exist for storing some recalcitrant seeds, but the seeds are usually short-lived and each species requires its own method.

Intermediate seeds

A third category of seeds showing intermediate behaviour has also been recognized: these seeds tolerate combinations of desiccation and low temperatures. There is, in fact, a gradient from orthodox to recalcitrant, with no sharp boundaries between categories. Although research has been conducted to overcome problems associated with seed conservation, little progress has been made beyond short-term storage of non-orthodox seeds.

Principles of seed storage

The underlying principle of successful seed storage is to maintain genetic integrity of accessions as seeds with high viability for long periods. Seeds of the original sample should be stored under the best possible conditions to ensure safe long-term survival, while seeds of accessions that are frequently requested by breeders or other users should be stored in the active collection. Genebanks may maintain both base and active collections or focus on only one. Such decisions are based on the purpose and needs of the genebank and economics of conservation.

For orthodox seeds, low temperatures and low moisture content are used to extend longevity and reduce regeneration intervals with related risks to loss of diversity and genetic integrity. Genebank requirements differ for crops and it is important to select a combination of temperature and seed moisture content specific for the species that will retain high viability for many years of conservation (see specific crop regeneration guidelines).

Practical considerations


Choice of location of the seed store is important to maximize efficiency and minimize cost:

Type of store

The commonly available options for seed storage are walk-in cold stores, freezers and liquid nitrogen dewars. The choice depends on the number of accessions to be stored, seed size and storage temperatures selected.

Sample size

Organization of space

The organization of storage space depends on the type of storage facility and the type of containers used in the genebank. In view of the cost of maintaining cold storage, the space should be optimized so that a maximum number of seed accessions can be stored.

Safety duplication

For more information about safety duplication see the safety duplication page.

References and further reading

Cromarty AS, Ellis RH, Roberts EH. 1982. Handbooks for Genebanks No. 1: The Design of Seed Storage Facilities for Genetic Conservation. IPGRI, Rome, Italy. Available in English. 100p.

Ellis RH. 1998. Longevity of seeds stored hermitically at low moisture contents. Seed Science Research 8 (Suppl. 1): 9-10.

Engels JMM, Visser L, editors. 2003. A guide to effective management of germplasm collections. IPGRI Handbooks for Genebanks No. 6. IPGRI, Rome, Italy. Available in English (1.4 MB) and Spanish (1.5 MB).

FAO. 2013. Genebank standards for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome. Available in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian and Chinese here.

Hong TD, Ellis RH. 1996. A protocol to determine seed storage behaviour. IPGRI Technical bulletin No.1. IPGRI, Rome.Hong TD, Linington SH, Ellis RH. 1996. Seed storage behaviour: A compendium. Handbooks for Genebanks No. 4. IPGRI, Rome.

Smith RD, Dickie JB, Linington SH, Pritchard HW, Probert JR. (eds.). 2003. Seed conservation: Turning science into practice. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Rao NK, Hanson J, Dulloo ME, Ghosh K, Nowel D, Larinde M. 2006. Manual of seed handling in genebanks. Handbooks for Genebanks No. 8. Bioversity International, Rome, Italy. Available in English (1.5 MB),  Spanish (1.4 MB) and French (1.9 MB).

The Genebanks

The 11 CGIAR genebanks currently conserve 730,000 of cereals and grain legumes, forage crops, tree species, root and tuber crops, bananas and crop wild relatives.