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HUMAN NATURE

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FUTURE PROOF

A NEW RESEARCH FACILITY IS PRESERVING AUSTRALIA’S PLANT LIFE – ONE SEED AT A TIME

Two rectangular mirrored structures jut futuristically out of the shrubbery, gleaming in the midday sun and reflecting the surrounding landscape. Joined off-centre to form an asymmetrical cross, the building is bookended by a patch of endangered Cumberland Plain woodland to the north and a nursery garden to the south. And its position among the local flora is appropriate: this is PlantBank, tucked into a quiet corner of the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan, an hour’s drive west of Sydney – a building dedicated to the research and conservation of Australia’s indigenous plants.

More than five percent of Australia’s plant species are endangered. “Plants make up the fabric of our everyday lives yet, somehow, protecting them is not a priority,” says John Siemon, a scientist and PlantBank’s project manager. “They clean the water we drink, the air we breathe, clothe and feed us and help us build many of the structures we live or work in.”

Until recently, Siemon and his team of 15 scientists and horticulturists were working in two agricultural farm sheds, he says, “doing things you’d do in a hospital but with plants.” Government funding and private and corporate sponsorship enabled the AU$20 million research centre to open in October 2013. Its goal? To one day hold in a seed repository specimens of all of Australia’s 25,000 seed-bearing native plants. “In most species we are yet to unlock the secrets of seeds that may hold potential for food, fibre or pharmaceutical products essential for our survival on the planet,” Siemon says. “In the meantime, this is the ultimate insurance policy against destruction and loss.”

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