By Zhang Fan, Yang Wenming, Li Maoying
In September 2021, Chinese researchers collected the seeds of Desideria himalayensis at an altitude of 6,212 meters at the East Rongbuk Glacier on Mount Qomolangma, setting a new record for plant seed collection at the highest altitude in China.
In July this year, seeds of five species of plants collected during the seed-collection mission on Mount Qomolangma successfully germinated after being preserved in cold storage at minus 20 degrees Celsius for nearly a year.
The success of the germination experiment means that China has collected and preserved the seeds of a plant found at the highest altitude globally so far and laid a foundation for relevant research into germplasm resources in the future.
On Sept. 24, 2021, Guo Yongjie, Zhao Yanhui, and the other six members of the team tasked with the seed-collection mission climbed Mount Qomolangma for the second time, following their first trip in August.
Prior to that, only 15 species of plants were publicly known to have been collected at a height of over 6,100 meters.
In the area referred to as the “forbidden zone of life”, where it is windy, extremely cold, and lacks oxygen, researchers must be very careful with every step they take on their way up the mountain.
The team set off from the transition camp at an altitude of 5,800 meters, and reached a height of around 6,200 meters several hours later.
“Desideria himalayensis,” Guo cried at the sight of the plant that wears camouflage colors. After recognizing the plant growing in a crevice, Guo immediately laid on his stomach to take pictures of it from all angles and recorded the altitude and other information about the spot where the plant was found.
The plant that grew at an altitude of 6,212 meters was the first plant they found at altitudes above 6,000 meters. What made Guo more excited was that some of the siliques of the Desideria himalayensis had split, which meant the team had a chance to collect the seeds of the plant.
Just after Guo collected the Desideria himalayensis, Mount Qomolangma in the distance revealed itself. Seeing the tiny, fragile branches of the plant sway in the wind in stark contrast to the snow-capped mountains in the distance, Guo thought to himself, Mount Qomolangma is awe-inspiring, but the tenacity of life is by no means inferior to it.
The seeds collected from Mount Qomolangma were quickly sent to the institute which launched the seed-collection mission – the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species in the Kunming Institute of Botany under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming, the capital of southwest China’s Yunnan province.
“Information about the seeds, such as the time when they were collected, the longitude, latitude, and altitude of the spots where they were collected, as well as the species, the initial quality and quantity of the seeds, must all be put into the database in a timely manner, so that it can be useful for future research and ecological restoration efforts,” said Qin Shaofa, head of the seed management team at the seed storage center of the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species.
According to the standards set by the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species, a complete seed sample needs to have at least 2,500 seeds, with around 10,000 seeds being the best case. However, since seeds are scarce at high altitudes of Mount Qomolangma, it is hardly possible to collect 2,500 seeds, so researchers can only try to collect and preserve as many seeds as possible first.
Qin and his team members put the seeds of plants including Desideria himalayensis and Saussurea gnaphalodes in the main drying room after counting and weighing them. After being kept in an environment with a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius and an air humidity of 15 percent for a month, the water content of the seeds were reduced to around 5 percent.
The precious seeds of plants such as Desideria himalayensis and Saussurea gnaphalodes entered a “dormant period” in a low-temperature and dry environment, and were then sealed up and put in cold storage for long-term preservation.
“It’s possible that these seeds will live several decades and even more than a thousand years in an environment with a constant temperature of minus 20 degrees Celsius,” Qin said.
In July this year, the seeds of five species of wild plants collected on Mount Qomolangma, namely Desideria himalayensis, Saussurea gnaphalodes, Pedicularis cheilanthifolia, Oxytropis microphylla, and Hippophae tibetana, were taken out of the cold storage by Yang Juan after being kept there for nearly 10 months.
Yang, a staff member of the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species in charge of seed germination, put the seeds in a drying room to raise their temperature before carefully placing a part of them on agar medium.
“In order to make sure that the seeds stored in the germplasm bank are alive, we test the viability of each seed sample once in a while,” Yang said, adding that the seeds of the five species of wild plants were tested for the first time 10 months after they were collected on Mount Qomolangma.
Within merely nine days, all the seeds had germinated. In particular, the germination of Desideria himalayensis has proven that China has successfully collected and preserved the seeds of a plant found at the highest altitude globally so far.
In addition to the seeds of plants collected on Mount Qomolangma, valuable germplasm resources from more than 10,000 species are preserved in the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species.
Since it was put into operation, 87,863 samples of seeds from 10,917 wild plant species in China have been stored in the germplasm bank, and seed samples from 36 percent of China’s flowering plant species are also kept in the facility.
A seed carries the hope of life from the moment it comes into being. The seeds preserved in the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species have without doubt brought more hope to biodiversity protection.