Doomsday! | Redbrick | University of Birmingham


Sci & Tech editor, Rachel Taylor explains how the war in Syria has impacted biodiversity and endemic plant species, and how they can be saved.

The war is Syria has created many crises across the globe. Turn to anyone and they could give you a long list of anguishes spreading from refugees and human rights issues, to ancient cities being destroyed and journalists tortured and beheaded. However, one tiny issue that is slipping everyone’s minds are the plants and crops of the world.

Syria used to boast some of the richest biodiversity of any country in the world, holding some very important medicinal and aromatic endemic species as well as essential crop wild relatives.

Many crop wild relatives have developed traits such as drought tolerance and pest resistance
English, please?

Well, an endemic species is one that is restricted to a certain place, in this case a native plant. Crop wild relatives are wild species of plant that are genetically related to our most important crops. Being wild, these plants continue to evolve by themselves and many have developed traits such as drought tolerance and pest resistance.

Woah, we could really do with more of those in our changing climate!

Yeah, we sure could: due to global warming our crops are struggling, fluctuating weather means pests are on the rise, and chemical pesticides are definitely not the way forward. Nobody wants their food sprayed with chemicals before they eat it. Crop plants with a heightened tolerance could also be planted where normally nothing would grow, feeding thousands! Scientists have been working on ways to breed crop wild relatives and our crops together to try and alleviate the hunger crisis for several years.

This all sounds great, what’s the problem?

Many of these useful and important species are in Syria and surrounding areas, so now with the so-called Islamic State invading and destroying everything they see, there’s not much left to save. Now, I understand this is a tiny problem compared to the recent atrocities placed on humanity because of the war, but just think of all the hunger issues that we could be closer to solving if we even had the right plants in the first place! Destroying these endemic crop wild relatives is destroying lives that could otherwise be saved.

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

If they’re so important, how come we’re only getting round to them now?

We aren’t, there has been work on these species for several years. A giant vault full of seeds deep within an Arctic mountain was built in 2008 to save these species in the event of a disaster, nicknamed the “doomsday bank”. Researchers in the Middle East have now been the first to ask for the “doomsday bank” to be opened, asking for seeds of wheat, grasses and barley. These are seeds that would normally be obtained from Aleppo, but due to the war, this has been made impossibly dangerous.

Wait, are you telling me there’s a secret vault full of seeds under an Arctic mountain?

I sure am, but it’s not exactly a secret to the scientific community; it’s there to protect the world’s biodiversity. Even if somehow the power was switched off and it was unable to be accessed, the vault could still preserve more than 860,000 samples from the world for another 200 years, still frozen.

How can I learn more?

There’s a website run by Norway’s government with information all about the project here.

Look, even the royals have something to say about it:


Sci & Tech Editor. Biological Sciences student. Keenly interested in the subjects of plant sciences and genetics. (@Rachel_Taylor95)


23rd September 2015 at 4:25 pm

Images from

Bjoertvedt and NordGen/Dag Terje Filip Endresen