There's no Noah's Ark on the horizon, but researchers work tirelessly to chronicle and store genetic blueprints for the plants and animals we depend on. These efforts have a similar goal to the one Noah's Ark would have served — as a backup against catastrophe. Gene banks can help us revive a species that would otherwise die out, such as the Indian cheetah, which went extinct more than half a century ago, or restock major livestock breeds if they're destroyed. Even a tuber as common as the potato has its own gene bank, which helps safeguard french fries and Tater Tots for generations to come.
A gene bank is a type of biorepository that preserves genetic material. For plants, this can be accomplished by drying and freezing seeds at temperatures that approximate those of a winter's frost, or through cryonic preservation, which freezes the seeds at lower, "near-death" conditions, stopping all molecular motion. More than 1,400 gene banks around the world chronicle and stock seeds from a wide range of plants, many of which are essential food crops.
But it's not just the big cash crops that find themselves in gene bank freezers. For example, the USDA's 19 seed bank facilities keep hundreds of thousands of different types of berries and other fruits. Researchers collect these varieties to protect the future of tart, sweet and in-between flavors, as well as to safeguard disease-resistant strains that may become increasingly important if the use of methyl bromide is restricted or eliminated in growing areas. New food trends also prompt searches for older cultivars, as was the case with the recent cider-making craze and a desire to try old-time favorites like mulberries and pears.