Maintaining crop diversity and plant genetic resources is an important part of both global food security and humanity’s ability to adapt to a changing climate. Seed banks are a key player in this effort, preserving crop cultivars and close relatives that may be needed in the future.
In a new perspective published in Nature Plants, lead author Ola T. Westengen and colleagues recount the successful rescue of the plant material from the Syrian genebank at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), and discuss the efforts and infrastructure necessary for this success story.
A key resource for preserving the plant genetic material of the Fertile Crescent, ICARDA, opened in 1976, has worked in more than 50 countries with temperate dryland agriculture, providing seeds free of charge to breeders and researchers. The facility housed thousands of traditional landraces and wild relatives of staple food crops, some of which may no longer be found outside the collection.
ICARDA began depositing seeds at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault when it opened in 2008. By the time war broke out in 2011, more than 100,000 accessions had already been duplicated in the vault. Working through ongoing warfare, the staff continued to make yearly deposits until the conflict made this impossible starting in 2014. More than 80% of its seed collection had been stored by the time the staff were forced to leave the facility.
Beginning in 2015, ICARDA staff began to retrieve the stored seeds and move genetic resource conservation activities to new facilities in Lebanon and Morocco. Since then, the seeds have been multiplied in large numbers – more than 30,000 samples annually since 2016 – to shore up collections as well as for distribution, and safety duplicates have once again been returned to Svalbard. By the end of 2019, over 83,000 accessions were sufficiently regenerated as to be available to users of the collection.
The cycles of seed generation required to reconstruct the entire collection will take until 2030 or longer, and will require increased funding for more than a decade. While some crops, such as cultivated cereals, are easy to regenerate quickly, others require special conditions and must be handled on an individual basis. This requires both expertise and adequate facilities to be in place, a challenge being met by ICARDA-Lebanon, which the authors note “now offers one the world’s largest facilities for the regeneration of wild- and cross-pollinated species, with 40 isolation cages used for self-compatible, cross-pollinated species and 200 isolation cages used for self-incompatible, cross-pollinated species, which employ bumble bees to enhance pollination.”
Rebuilding the ICARDA collection has “been a test of the resilience of the international ex situ system that ICARDA and the Seed Vault are parts of. The experience thus constitutes a unique learning experience also for other genebanks and institutions in the system,” the authors write. “First and foremost, the story shows that international cooperation is essential for safeguarding genetic resources and crop diversity for public use by future generations.”
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