The most obvious reason for maintaining plant diversity is because we rely on plants for food, and a blight that targets a major crop could have serious implications. Unfortunately, the world's major staple crops have been greatly homogenized over the years, and that's not a good thing. Many countries have lost agrobiodiversity (or the diversity of their agricultural crops), which puts the cultures and livelihoods of the poorest populations at even greater risk.
Innovative new medicines are another reason to maintain biodiversity among plants. It's a dangerous world out there and plants, being for the most part immobile, have had to evolve some particularly fiendish and unique defenses that scientists can use for medicinal purposes. Even animals, mobile creatures that they are, have had to develop some pretty potent defenses that can help scientists cook up new medicines. But in the most basic sense, the reason we need plants -- along with organisms like algae and cyanobacteria -- is because they're essential for a properly functioning planet. We wouldn't even have the oxygen that we're so fond of breathing, for example, without photosynthesis.
Fortunately, conservationists had the insight to begin conserving plants in the 1950s. Some plants are maintained in their original habitats and others are held in gene banks, cell cultures and at various zoos and botanical gardens [source: FAO]. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations lists 20 major plant gene banks around the world. These banks house various types of seeds but also back up one another in the event of natural and manmade disasters.
Botanists use two methods to preserve and store a plant's genetic material. Drying and freezing seeds mimics the natural process of winter. Seeds stored by this method survive for decades. But frozen seeds must be thawed and planted to produce seeds that will grow crops. Cryonic freezing is more expensive, but it keeps stored genes "fresh" much longer than conventional drying and freezing. At cryonic temperatures, molecular action stops. Think of it as suspended animation. The frozen seed stays in the same condition, not changing or aging. The genetic seed banks around the world use these methods to store genetic and seed samples from hundreds of plants.
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