New x-ray machine saving rare seeds from death at the National Seed Bank

Thousands of Australia's rarest and most precious seeds will be spared an untimely death thanks to new technology at the National Seed Bank.

The seed bank, housed at the National Botanic Gardens, is the proud owner of a new X-ray machine that has revolutionised the way staff can monitor the seed collection.

Research technician Brook Clinton at the National Seed Bank with the new X-ray machine saving Australia's seeds. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Research technician Brook Clinton at the National Seed Bank with the new X-ray machine saving Australia's seeds. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Scientists were previously forced to cut into the seeds, and thus kill them, to determine their health and ability to germinate.

Some of the larger seed collections could lose hundreds of seeds to this process every few years, but no more.

The seed bank's seed conservation biologist, Lydia Guja, said the team was thrilled with the new piece of equipment.

Research technician Brook Clinton examines the critically endangered small purple pea seed at Canberra's National Seed Bank. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Research technician Brook Clinton examines the critically endangered small purple pea seed at Canberra's National Seed Bank. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

"With some of our older collections, they're only small and very valuable," Dr Guja said.

"We just don't have any seeds to sacrifice."

The National Seed Bank has almost 4000 collections of unique plant species housed in Canberra, with the oldest collection dating back to the 1960s.

Dr Guja said the dry and cool conditions of the seed bank - seeds are kept at minus 20 degrees - can prolong their life from 10 or 15 years to more than 1000 years.

The new machine, purchased by Parks Australia, operates much like an X-ray you might get on a broken arm, but with much lower doses of radiation and specifically delivered to image seeds.

An X-ray image using new technology at the National Seed Bank in Canberra. Healthy seeds appear bright and opaque in the centre, where dead seeds appear grey, clear or shriveled up inside. Photo: National Seed Bank

An X-ray image using new technology at the National Seed Bank in Canberra. Healthy seeds appear bright and opaque in the centre, where dead seeds appear grey, clear or shriveled up inside. Photo: National Seed Bank

Dr Guja said the x-ray provided an excellent image of the inside of the seed, from which you could determine its ability to germinate.

Dead seeds often looked identical to healthy seeds from the outside, she said. Some of the factors that can affect seeds are age, drought and even insects.

A healthy seed will appear bright and opaque, Dr Guja explained, with the embryo in the centre surrounded by the endosperm which provides nutrients.

In layman's terms, it's a bit like a chicken egg - the embryo the yolk and the endosperm the white.

For imaging technician Brook Clinton the new kit has made her job vastly easier.

Instead of imaging only the outside of seeds with an unwieldy microscope, the seeds can now simply be put inside the X-ray and it will take care of the rest.

Dr Guja said the technology would improve the seed bank's ability to maintain an "insurance collection" for rare species in case anything goes wrong in the wild.

"But as much as we're putting them aside for long term conservation, we try to always have a fraction that we can use to do conservation now," she said.

"To learn about the species and understand what they need to germinate.

"We need to be able to use those seeds out of the bank, it's not just about locking them away it's about knowing how to grow them."