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Queen of seeds

If you took a stranger and air-dropped them in the City it would only take them a short while to realise there was something special about Melbourne, something unusual in a vast metropolis.

Many cities are interesting. Many have more art, more cultural activities, more shopping, more of any number of exciting things than Melbourne.

But Melbourne had attitude – not the brash assertiveness of Sydney, rather an attitude of confidence tinged with a touch of mystery and mischief. The contrasting urban elements of Melbourne – parklands for the day, laneways for the night – gave it a sense of light and shade that seemed to raise many possibilities in the minds of both residents and visitors; a sense of hidden secrets.

It was Sunday morning in April: bright, luminescent and clear. Lilith cycled from Docklands into Fed Square and had breakfast outdoors with Jorge and Lisbet, a couple from Argentina who were in Australia on a work/tourism visa. They’d come to Melbourne a year or so earlier, liked it, and through the on-line exchange sites, Jorge had been able to get work in his specialty area of horticulture.

After breakfast, the trio strolled down to Jorge’s work at Government House.

In 2015, Australia became a republic. A minor footnote of that momentous event was the question of what to do with all the grand governmental residencies spread around the best real estate in the country.

Melbourne’s Government House, with its vast gardens and other-wordly village behind the fences was now home to the Australian National Horticultural Museum and Seed Bank.

Seed banks had been destroyed in recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Colombia and the Phillippines. Contamination had ruined collections in the USA, India and Kenya.

While the northern hemisphere had the sub-Arctic doomsday seed vault at Longyearbyen in Norway, the lower half of the globe had nothing of a scale that could come into play in the event of a serious catastrophe,

Until the Melbourne centre was created. The centre also housed a research centre, sponsored by one of the global chocolate manufacturers, which undertook genetic work in the developing area of nutriceuticals and food medicine. (Upon entry, visitors could sample serotonin-laced chocolates to put them in the right mood.)

Jorge worked in the arena of bionutriceuticals. The team he was supervising was working on splicing insulin genes into plasmids that were then delivered into cellulose vectors in wattle trees. Artificial insulin production via genetically modified seed crops such as corn had been used for some years, but the harvest costs were significant. A single, fast-growing tree could produce more insulin than five hectares of corn.

The Government House site was an oddly Melburnian response to climate change, Lilith reflected as they wandered the display halls and gardens. First it was a mixture of alliances – several levels of government including the Royal Botanic Gardens, Department of Sustainability and City of Melbourne; research in the form of Melbourne Uni, Burnley Horticultural Research Centre and the CSIRO, and business in the form of sponsors and partners.

Second, the project was carried out very much in the public space instead of behind closed doors. The gardens at Government House were co-managed by the Garden History Society, a volunteer organisation of amateur enthusiasts. The call for seeds also had a very public face, as the project represented the first national opportunity for people to understand themselves in the context of the growing world around them.

The result was shaping up to be extraordinary: public support had been massive. Normally seed banks were the province of scientists and researchers, but the grounds and imagination of the Melbourne site had created a way for people to contribute to, and participate in, an aspect of the City’s response to climate change. In the first year of operation, more than a million samples were sent in from ordinary people around Australia.

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Topic revision: r2 - 13 Jun 2008 - 11:17:20 - RobCatchlove