Why seed conservation and genebanks are crucial for maintaining biodiversity

by Rajani Kumar | ICRISAT
Friday, 18 May 2018 08:45 GMT

A Malawian trader sells maize near the capital Lilongwe, Malawi February 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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With climate change threatening crop diversity, genebanks take on the crucial role of being the source of biological genetic diversity

In 2012 an agricultural scientist working with sorghum in Niger was in charge of 480 types of sorghum seeds that were stored in a local repository. His organization applied for and subsequently obtained a US$1 million grant for a project on adaptation and improvement of these varieties. However, when the project team tried to regenerate the stored seeds, they discovered that none of them were viable anymore. Improper, inadequate storage conditions had destroyed the viability of the seeds. The project was in danger of being canceled and the grant revoked.

Fortunately, the scientist-in-charge had had the foresight to duplicate all 480 accessions and have them stored at a different location – the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) genebank. The project workers were able to immediately retrieve the accessions, regenerate them and proceed as planned.

This is just one example of why seed conservation – and genebanks – are so important. Genebanks – repositories of genetic material (germplasm) of plants or animals – play a critical role towards a two-pronged goal: i) making the germplasmavailable for researchers, plant breeders and farmers in the short term and ii) ensuring that the genetic material for future food supply are preserved in the long term.

In other words, genebanks play a pivotal part in maintaining biological diversity, especially with the looming threat of climate change and other factors. The United Nations International Day for Biological Diversity is celebrated on 22 May as a reminder to everyone that biological diversity is a global asset that is fast depleting, and itsconservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing could not be overemphasized. The year 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Over seven million plant germplasm accessions are currently conserved in 1750 genebanks around the world, and about two million are expected to be unique.

The ICRISAT genebank, spread across Africa and India, holds about 170,000 seed accessions. Characterization, regeneration and viability testing, followed by duplication of the accessions are some of the key activities of the genebank. Duplication enables multiple copies of seed accessions to be stored at different locations to prevent loss in case of any calamity at one location.

The goal of genebank scientists is not only to keep the accessions safe and viable but also to genotype them so as to understand the genetic diversity among the collection. Says Dr. Vania Azevedo, Incoming Head of the ICRISAT genebank, “With rapid advances in technology, such as next-generation sequencing (NGS), genotyping has become more cost-efficient, accurate and standardized, compared to a decade ago.

This has proved extremely valuable because genotype data forms a critical subset ofthe information required for every accession’s DOI (Digital Object Identifier) – a mandatory requirement as per the Nagoya Protocol for sharing of genetic material. DOI data enables accessions to be tracked, reported and documented during transfers globally.”

In countries such as Niger, where awareness about seed conservation is low, the genebank is also helping raise awareness among smallholder farmers about the benefits of depositing their landraces with the genebank. At Niamey, Niger, Dr.Hamidou Falalou and other genebank employees conduct awareness camps to inform farmers of how genebanks are useful. Breeders can use the genotyped seeds for breeding crops with better traits, obtaining better yields and returns for farmers.

Moreover, by collecting wild varieties as well as landraces from farmer fields in different locations, the genebank assures a protected site for the indigenous genetic material, so that it is not lost due to disease, climate change or negligence. Dr. Falalou says, “When nationalbreeders come to our fields and see the diversity of varieties available, they are very happy to select those favorable to their breeding program. This increases the distribution of seeds also. After all, conservation is good, but distribution is better.”

With climate change threatening crop diversity across the globe, genebanks cease to be mere repositories of germplasm and take on the imperative role of being the source of biological genetic diversity; providing enhanced seeds that can stand up to disease, pests and a changing environment; and protecting the native agricultural heritage of farmers across the world.

The objectives of preventing biodiversity loss and promoting sustainable use of land and water ecosystems also resonate well with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 15.

Rajani Kumar is a communication officer at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)