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[NEW DELHI] An Indian seed bank in the Himalayas will serve as a backup for Indian genetic material stored in the global seed vault in the Arctic.

Indian scientists said the Himalayan facility is the second largest in the world after the Arctic seed vault that opened in Svalbard, Norway, in February 2008 and reported a collection of half a million species in March 2010.

Seed banks are repositories for crop genetic material and insure against species extinction because of natural or manmade disasters.

The Defence Institute of High Altitude Research in Leh, in India's northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir, built the seed vault 75 kilometres away in Chang La last year (November 2009). Actual deposits began last month (15 February).

"Right now it is envisaged as a national seed facility, but over time we may consider throwing it open to other countries, developed and developing, depending on government approval," William Selvamurthy, Chief Controller of Research and Development at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), told SciDev.Net.

The Indian Council of Agriculture Research, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Department of Biotechnology may use the Himalayan seed bank.

Chang La's permafrost conditions, 20 per cent relative humidity (amount of moisture in the air) and temperatures below minus 18 degrees Celsius, except in May and June, offer a cheap alternative to 'cryopreservation' or freezing plant material to minus 196 degrees Celsius, using liquid nitrogen.

Chang La is more accessible than Svalbard and is close to a popular tourist trail. And at 5,360 metres above sea level, there is no danger of melting ice-sheets. Its sealed 'black box' design prevents disputes over intellectual property rights.

Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust that operates the Svalbard vault together with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre in Sweden, said its half-million mark for seeds comes at a time when global agriculture systems "are sitting on a knife’s edge".

Seed banks worldwide "are the keys to climate change adaptation for the world's farmers", said Fowler.