The pounds 21m of millennium cash awarded by Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, will be one of the "most important gifts of our generation", the recipients said yesterday.
The money will go towards a Millennium Seed Bank which will aim to collect, research and conserve seeds from almost all the United Kingdom's flora by 2000.
By 2010 it is hoped the new institution will have ensured the safety of 10 per cent of the world's flora - much of which is on the verge of extinction.
The bank will be built at Wakehurst Place, West Sussex - the site of the gardens' present seed bank - and will open for the public to see the work of sorting, selecting and storing seeds. It will concentrate on species in the UK - with local botanists playing a part in seed collection - and on the species of the arid and semi-arid regions of the world.
According to senior environmental sources, in the next 50 years some 25 per cent of plant species could become extinct.
The director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Professor Sir Ghillean Prance, said yesterday: "The saving of rare seeds and potentially useful wild species of plants is one of the most important gifts our generation could give to the people of the third millennium.
"There is no doubt that species of plants will continue to become extinct in the wild. The design of the new seed bank will both ensure the safety of the seeds as a world resource and allow our visitors to learn more about the importance of seeds and their conservation.
"The installation of this vast expansion to our seed bank is one of the greatest and most important challenges ever faced by the Royal Botanic Gardens."
The total cost of the new seed bank is estimated at pounds 58m. The Royal Botanic Gardens has already raised pounds 30m in private funds and is launching a spring campaign for the extra pounds 7m needed.
The gardens' present bank, which has been operating at Wakehurst Place for 23 years, only contains 2 per cent of flowering plant flora.
The Secretary of state for Agriculture, Douglas Hogg, said yesterday that the grant fell in line with the spirit of the Biodiversity Convention which John Major signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
He added: "The seed bank will stand as a major contribution by the UK to the conservation of biodiversity at a time of growing international concern about the consequences of genetic erosion.
"The Royal Botanic Gardens is acknowledged world-wide as pre-eminent in its field and the seed-bank project should build on its reputation as a centre for scientific excellence."
Mrs Bottomley said: "The Millennium Seed Bank, our fifth national landmark, will be of global significance in the third millennium. Our support for this project stands as a major investment in the well-being of the planet and future generations."Reuse content