The cave dwellers of south Staffordshire

The weather was glorious – again – today. In fact, it’s more like early summer than the end of March (although the forecast is for low temperatures once again this weekend).

So we took the opportunity to make another National Trust property visit, and this time headed off northwest from Bromsgrove to Kinver Edge in south Staffordshire, only about 16 miles away.

Kinver Edge is a red sandstone escarpment where, in centuries past, there was a small community of residents who carved homes from the soft sandstone. The cave dwellings, known as the Holy Austin Rock Houses, were occupied until the 1930s, after which they fell into disrepair. There are records of occupation in the 1700s, but it’s believed that the caves were occupied much earlier than that.

The climb to the top of Kinver Edge is quite fierce, and the slopes are very steep indeed. But the view from the top is worth it, looking out over Staffordshire (and Wolverhampton and Dudley) to the north, Shropshire to the west, Worcestershire and Warwickshire to the east, and south towards Worcester, the Malvern Hills, and Severn Estuary beyond. It was a little hazy today but nevertheless we had some good views.

Click here to view a web album.

Déjà vu, again?

A rather interesting experiment was reported on the BBC TV news at 6 o’clock this evening. Tree scientists in 12 European countries will assess the response of many different tree species at 37 locations along a 1600 mile stretch of Atlantic coastline. The saplings planted at all sites come from the Mediterranean, eastern Europe, California, and beyond. The experiment will last for decades as scientists monitor the growth and health of the trees.

Multilocation field trials of this type are essential if we are ever to get a handle on how plants (and crops) respond under a changing climate, and what germplasm (and in the case of trees, for example, which provenances) should be tapped to maintain productivity.

It’s not only response to increasing temperature that will be critical. It’s that we’ll be experiencing higher temperatures under existing daylengths (or photoperiod). So experiments over a wide range of latitude can begin to investigate some of these temperature x photoperiod relationships.

In December 1990 (while I was at the University of Birmingham) I presented a paper on crop networks and global warming [1] at a joint EUCARPIA/IBPGR symposium, held in Wageningen, the Netherlands. I put forward a proposal to establish a network of field trials of barley (Hordeum vulgare) landraces from a very wide geographical range across Europe, to cover the broadest distribution of both latitude and longitude. Since barley is a weakly buffered genetically – it has 2n=2x=14 chromosomes, and is a self-fertilizing diploid – most of the genetic variation in any line should be expressed.

The barley germplasm exists, as do the databases. Click on the image for an interesting link.

In this way I suggested that we could use the power of multilocation trials to help identify germplasm traits for use in breeding under climate change. Needless to say, the idea went down like a lead balloon, and I didn’t pursue it further; in any case I moved on and joined IRRI. Quite a number of the symposium participants told me that my proposal was not worth pursuing, simply because climate change was not a reality. Now we know different. But just think how much further we would be ahead today if multilocation trials had been started a couple of decades ago.

When I joined IRRI in 1991, I had, as head of the Genetic Resources Center, overall responsibility for INGER – the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, but not day-to-day management. At one early meeting I suggested that perhaps a new model for multilocation testing should be adopted with proper randomized and replicated trials at carefully selected locations – but only where collaborators would be willing to conduct rather more sophisticated field trials, as well as collect accurate weather data. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that this was not INGER, and despite my best efforts to bring about change and inject some science, the network continued on its merry way, collecting volumes of data of little use to anyone. Another opportunity lost!

So it is rather heartening to see that, at last, some scientists have bitten the bullet – and a big one at that, since the trials will last several decades. Now that’s what I call commitment.

[1] Jackson, MT, 1991. Global warming: the case for European cooperation for germplasm conservation and use. In: Th.J.L. van Hintum, L. Frese & P.M. Perret (eds.), Crop Networks. Searching for New Concepts for Collaborative Genetic Resources Management. International Crop Network Series No. 4. International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, Rome, Italy. Papers of the EUCARPIA/IBPGR symposium held in Wageningen, the Netherlands, December 3-6, 1990. pp. 125-131.

Genetic resources – the impact of the University of Birmingham

The University of Birmingham, a major English university, received its royal charter in 1900, although a predecessor medical college was founded in Birmingham in 1825.

Although strong in the various biological sciences – with leading botany, zoology, microbiology, and genetics departments (now combined into a School of Biosciences), Birmingham never had an agriculture faculty. Yet its impact on agriculture worldwide has been significant.

For decades it had one of the strongest genetics departments in the world, with luminaries such as Professor Sir Kenneth Mather FRS* and Professor John Jinks FRS**, leading the way in cytology, and population and quantitative genetics.

In fact, genetics at Birmingham was renowned for its focus on quantitative genetics and applications to plant breeding. For many years it ran a one-year MSc course in Applied Genetics.

The head of the department of botany and Mason Professor of Botany during the 1960s was Jack Heslop-Harrison FRS*** whose research and reviews on genecology would make such valuable contributions to the field of plant genetics resources.

Professor Jack Hawkes OBE succeeded Heslop-Harrison as Mason Professor of Botany in 1967, although he’d been in the department since 1952. Jack was a leading taxonomist of the tuber-bearings Solanums – potatoes! Since 1938 he had made several collecting expeditions to the Americas (often with his Danish colleague JP Hjerting) to collect and study wild potatoes. And it was through his work on potatoes that Jack became involved with the newly-founded plant genetic resources movement under the leadership of Sir Otto Frankel. Jack joined a Panel of Experts at FAO, and through the work of that committee plans were laid at the end of the 1960s to collect and conserve the diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives worldwide, and establish an international network of genebanks.

The culmination of that initiative – four decades later – was the opening in 2008 of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault by the Global Crop Diversity Trust).

Jack wondered how a university might contribute effectively to the various genetic resources initiatives, and decided that a one-year training course leading to a masters degree (MSc) would be the best approach. With support from the university, the course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources took its first intake of four students (from Australia, Brazil, Candada, and the UK) in September 1969. I joined the course in September 1970, alongside Ayla Sencer from Izmir, Turkey, Altaf Rao from Pakistan, Folu Dania Ogbe from Nigeria, and Felix Taborda-Romero from Venezuela. Jack invited many of the people he worked with worldwide in genetic resources to come to Birmingham to give guest lectures. And we were treated to several sessions with the likes of Dr Erna Bennett from FAO and Professor Jack Harlan from the University of Illinois.

From the outset, Frankel thought within 20 years everyone who needed training would have passed through the course. He was mistaken by about 20 years. The course remained the only formal training course of its kind in the world, and by 2008 had trained over 1400 MSc and 3-month short course students from more than 100 countries, many becoming genetic conservation leaders in their own countries. Although the course, as such, is no longer offered, the School of Biosciences still offers PhD opportunities related to the conservation, evaluation and use of genetic resources.

The first external examiner (for the first three years) was Professor Hugh Bunting, Professor of Agricultural Botany at the University of Reading. Other examiners over the years have included Professor Eric Roberts (Reading) and Professor John Cooper FRS (Aberystwyth) and directors of Kew, Professor Sir Arthur Bell and Professor Sir Peter Crane FRS. Students were also able to carry out their dissertation research over the years at other institutions, such as Kew-Wakehurst Place (home of the Millennium Seed Bank) and the Genetic Resources Unit, Warwick Crop Centre (formerly the National Vegetable Genebank at Wellesbourne) where the manager for many years was Dr Dave Astley, a Birmingham graduate from the 1971 intake.

And what has been the impact of training so many people? Most students returned to their countries and began work in research – collecting and conserving. In 1996, FAO presented a report, The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources, to the Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources held in Leipzig, Germany, in June 1996, and published in 1998. Many Birmingham graduates attended that conference as members of national delegations, and some even headed their delegations. In the photo below, everyone is a Birmingham graduate, with the exception of Dr Geoff Hawtin, Director General (fourth from the right, at the back) and Dr Lyndsey Withers, Tissue Culture Specialist (seventh from the right, front row) from IPGRI (now Bioversity International) that provided scholarships to students from developing countries, and guest lectures. Two other delegates, Raul Castillo (Ecuador) and Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), are not in the photo, since they were occupied in delicate negotiations at the time.

In 1969, two new members of staff were recruited to support the new MSc course. Dr J Trevor Williams (shown on the right in this photo taken at the 20th anniversary meeting at Birmingham in November 1989) acted as the course tutor, and lectured about plant variation.

Dr Richard Lester (who died in 2006) was a chemotaxonomist and Solanaceae expert. Trevor left Birmingham at the end of the 70s to become Executive Secretary, then Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (which in turn became IPGRI, then Bioversity International).

Brian Ford-Lloyd (now Professor of Conservation Genetics and Director of the university Graduate School) joined the department in 1979 and was the course tutor for many years, and contributing lectures in data management, among others.

With the pending retirement of Jack Hawkes in September 1982, I was appointed in April 1981 as a lecturer to teach evolution of crop plants, agroecology, and germplasm collecting among others, and to supervise dissertation research. I eventually supervised more than 25 MSc students in 10 years, some of whom continued for a PhD under my supervision (Susan Juned, Denise Clugston, Ghani Yunus, Javier Francisco-Ortega) as well as former students from Peru (René Chavez and Carlos Arbizú) who completed their PhD on potatoes working at CIP while registered at Birmingham. I was also the short course tutor for most of that decade.

IBPGR provided funding not only for students, but supported the appointment of a seed physiologist, Dr Pauline Mumford until 1990. This was my first group of students who commenced their studies in September 1981. Standing are (l to r): Reiner Freund (Germany), Pauline Mumford, and two students from Bangladesh. Seated (l to r) are: Ghani Yunus (Malaysia), student from Brazil, Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Margarida Texeira (Portugal), student from Indonesia. Missing from that photo is Yen-Yuk Lo from Malaysia.

MSc students from Malaysia, Germany, Uruguay, Turkey, Portugal, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Dr Pauline Mumford, seed physiologist, stands in the second row.

The course celebrated its 20th anniversary in November 1989, and a group of ex-students were invited to Birmingham for a special workshop, sponsored by IBPGR. In the photo below are (l to r): Elizabeth Acheampong (Ghana), Indonesia, Trevor Williams, Yugoslavia, Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), India, Carlos Arbizu (Peru), Philippines, ??, Andrea Clausen (Argentina), Songkran Chitrakon (Thailand), ??.

We also planted a medlar tree (Mespilus germanica); this photo was taken at the tree planting, and shows staff, past and current students.

After I resigned from the university to join IRRI in 1991, Dr Nigel Maxted was appointed as a lecturer, and has continued his work on wild relatives of crop plants and in situ conservation. He has also taken students on field courses to the Mediterranean several times.

I was privileged to attend Birmingham as a graduate student (I went on to complete a PhD under Jack Hawkes’ supervision) and become a member of the faculty. The University of Birmingham has made a very significant contribution to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources around the world.

Graduation December 1975
L to r: ?, Bryn ?, me, Trevor Williams, Jacks Hawkes, Jean Hanson, ?, Jane Toll, Steve Smith

Today, hundreds of Birmingham graduates are involved daily in genetic conservation or helping to establish policy concerning access to and use of genetic resources around the world. Their work has ensured the survival of agrobiodiversity and its use to increase the productivity of crops upon which the world’s population depends.


* Mather was Vice Chancellor (= CEO) of the University of Southampton when I was an undergraduate there from 1967-1970. After retirement from Southampton, Mather returned to Birmingham and had an office in the Department of Genetics. In the late 1980s when I was teaching at Birmingham, and a member of the Genetics Group, I moved my office close-by Mather’s office, and we would frequently meet to discuss issues relating to genetic resources conservation and use. He often told me that a lot of what I mentioned was new to him – especially the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet, which had been the basis of a Genetics Group seminar by one of my PhD students, Ghani Yunus from Malaysia, who was working on Lathyrus sativus, the grasspea. Mather and I agreed to meet a few days later, but unfortunately we never met since he died of a heart attack in the interim.

** John Jinks was head of department when Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse applied to the university in 1967. Without a foreign language qualification it looked like he would not be offered a place. Until Jinks intervened. Paul Nurse often states that had it not been for John Jinks, he would not have made it to university. Jinks was the head of the Agricultural Research Council when he died in 1987. He was chair of the interview panel when I was appointed to a lectureship in plant biology at Birmingham in April 1981.

*** Heslop-Harrison became Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1970-1976.

Perú – país precioso

I can’t remember why I had always wanted to visit Peru. All I know is that since I was a small boy, Peru had held a big fascination for me. I used to spend time leafing through an atlas, and spending most time looking at the maps of South America, especially Peru. And I promised myself (in the way that you do when you’re small, and can’t see how it would ever happen) that one day I would visit Peru.

Just a few months after I had begun my graduate studies at the University of Birmingham in October 1973, my head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes, returned from a 2-month trip to Bolivia to collect wild potatoes, and had spent time in Lima with Dr Richard Sawyer who became the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) in October 1971. He was looking for someone to work at CIP for one year from September 1971 to look after a large collection of native Peruvian potato varieties while a young Peruvian took his MSc degree at Birmingham.

To cut a long story short, I didn’t go in 1971, but landed in Lima at the beginning of January 1973 after a long and gruelling flight on B.O.A.C. from London via Antigua (in the Caribbean), Caracas, and Bogotá.

Until I was able to rent an apartment, I stayed in the Pensión Beech (a boarding house) in San Isidro for about three weeks. Arriving at night, I was driven through the darkness to the pensión and hadn’t a clue where I was or where I was going. The following morning I woke to a bright summer’s day, and was amazed at the beauty of Lima gardens, particularly the stunning bougainvilleas that seemed to be growing everywhere, as well as bright red poinsettia shrubs (small trees actually), a plant I had only ever seen growing as a pot plant!

Eventually, I found a one bedroom apartment in the center of Miraflores, next to the Todos supermarket (I wonder if it’s still there?), and then, once my wife had joined me in July 1973 (we were married in the Municipalidad de Miraflores in October 1973) we rented a 12th floor apartment on Av. Larco near the corner with Av. Benavides (there was an ice cream parlor on the ground floor – 20 Sabores). But the 12th floor is not ideal place to be when an earthquake struck, as they did with increasing regularity after the massive quake of October 1974 (measured at 8.1 on the Richter scale at La Molina where I was working, and lasting for more than 2 minutes).

Peru is a country of amazing contrasts. Just click here to view a web album of photos I took during 1973.

First there is the geography: the long coastal desert stretching north from Lima to the border with Ecuador, and south to Chile where it merges with the Atacama Desert. It hardly ever rains on the coast, but the sea mists that are prevalent during the months of July-September do provide sufficient moisture in some parts (lomas) to develop quite a rich flora. The Andes mountains take your breath away with their magnificence. The foothills begin just a few kilometers from the coast, and the mountains rise to their highest point in Huascarán (6,768 m), the fourth highest mountain in the western hemisphere.

And to the east of the Andes is the selva, the vast plain of tropical rainforest, dissected by huge rivers, flowing north towards the River Amazon, and, thousands of kilometers later, eastwards to the Atlantic Ocean.

Second, Peru is a country of cultural diversity and a rich archaeology. Everyone has heard of the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu, ‘discovered’ by Yale professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. But throughout the country there are many sites that demonstrate the long cultural development of different groups, especially along the coast oases where rivers flowing westwards from the Andes brought life-giving water to the coastal desert. And there is also considerable evidence for the range of plants and animals that these peoples domesticated: the potato, beans, cotton, peanut, and llamas to name but a few. Fortunately this rich history has been preserved and Lima boasts some of the best museums in the world.

From north to south, different peoples wear different dress. In Cajamarca, the typical dress is a tall straw hat and a russet-colored poncho. In central Peru, the women wear hats like the one shown in the photo on the right. The south of Peru, around Cuzco and Puno is more traditional still.

Peru is also a country of great handicrafts – from the leather goods made  in Lima, to the carved gourds or mate burilado, clay figures of farmers or religious effigies, to a wealth of brightly colored textiles.

Lastly on this short celebration of Peru, I have to mention some of my favorite food – and I’ve learned that in recent years Lima has become one of the top gourmet capitals of the world. If I had to mention just a couple of dishes they would be ceviche (fish marinated in lime juice and hot chili peppers, and served with sweet potato) and papa a la huancaina, made from sliced yellow potatoes, and boiled eggs, and covered with a spicy sauce.

And one of the great ways of serving food is the pachamanca. Of course, all washed down with a good Peruvian beer – Cusqueña, Arequipeña, or Pilsen Callao (my favorite). But I have to mention my favorite drink: pisco sour. Whoever invented that deserves a medal! The only drink better than a pisco sour is a second one.

I was privileged to live in Peru for three years, and have visited there many times since. My work took me all over the country to collect native varieties of potatoes, and to carry out field studies on how farmers adopt and use different varieties. I never lost the excitement of arriving in Lima and waiting to get out into the wild country.

Lima is an enormous city now. It’s been more than a decade since I was last there. In 1973 it seemed there was hardly enough water for a population of about 1.5 million if my memory serves me well. The latest data indicate that Lima now has a population in excess of 9.3 million. I’m told the traffic situation is horrendous.

Certainly the road network around the country has improved – much of my time was spent on dirt roads, hugging the sides of mountains, with precipices up to 1000 m. Not the sort of place to take your eyes off the road.

Given the opportunity I would go back to Peru tomorrow. Although I have seen a good deal of the country, there’s still more to see. I traveled by road, by air, on foot, and on horseback. I slept in schools and a post office, and been eaten up by fleas in a hotel in northern Peru. But I enjoyed (almost) every minute – the friendliness and friendship of Peruvians, and the wonderful paisajes (landscapes), and its illustrious history.

Spring is sprung . . .

My wife and I are members of the National Trust, and this allows us to visit a whole range of historic houses and gardens that the organization maintains. This is a great reason for getting out-and-about – but only if the weather is good.

Well, yesterday, we really did begin to feel as if winter was finally over. After a bit of a disappointing start, the day did brighten, and most of the clouds blocking the sun did disperse. It actually began to feel warm in the sun, even though there was a cold breeze.

And we headed for Baddesley Clinton, a moated house from the 15th century, owned and occupied for over 500 years by the Ferrers family.

They were Catholics at a time in English history when it was not a wise choice – when Elizabeth I and James I were on the throne. The house has three priestholes. Click on the photograph above to view a web album.

The grounds are not extensive, but with the spring flowers (particularly the daffodils, in full bloom – and more yet to flower) they were attractive. No doubt the estate was much bigger in times past.

Today, the weather is even better, and promises a fine weekend – almost BBQ weather. The long, dark days of winter are behind us, the clocks move forward 1 hour tomorrow night, and summer is fast approaching.

Staffordshire oatcakes – a local delicacy

Although I was born in Congleton (in the county of Cheshire), I moved to Leek, in north Staffordshire – about 12 miles away to the southeast – when I was seven.

So, I grew up in the shadow of the Staffordshire Moorlands, and actually think of myself more or less as Staffordshire born and bred. My father was a Staffordshire man who was born in the brewing town of Burton-upon-Trent.

For me, the Staffordshire Moorlands (on the southern edge of the Peak District National Park – and, founded in 1951, the first national park in the UK) is one of the most beautiful parts of England. It’s wild and rugged, but dissected by the deep, wooded valleys of the River Churnet, and the River Dane (which forms the boundary between Staffordshire and Cheshire for about 10 miles). Among the most famous landmarks are the Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks, outcrops of millstone grit, and home for many decades to a feral population of wallabies!

For seven years from 1960 I attended high school in Stoke-on-Trent – the Potteries. In those days, the Potteries were a dark and dismal city, covered in the grime from the collieries (and steam railways) as well as the smoke from the myriad of bottle ovens found in all the factories (known as ‘potbanks’), where world-famous ceramics were made, such as Wedgwood, Spode, and Royal Doulton.

Now, the pits have closed, and the ceramic industry is but a shadow of its former glory (the Wedgwood family is fighting to keep a priceless collection of ceramics together, in danger of being sold off piecemeal to cover the pension fund debts of the parent company that went bankrupt in 2009). The Clean Air Act of the mid-1950s ensured that the pollution that once smothered the Potteries was a thing of the past. And over the past decades the spoil heaps from the collieries have been levelled (in one part of the city they were referred to as ‘the Cobridge Alps’), and whole areas of terraced housing (once occupied by the workers from the potbanks) have been demolished to make way for new developments.

And one of the businesses affected is The Hole in the Wall.

Well, I guess this means nothing to almost everyone who reads this post. About to close down – on 25 March to be precise – The Hole in the Wall is the last remaining front-room oatcake bakery in Staffordshire.

Oatcakes? These aren’t the crispy biscuits you buy in Scotland. Oh no! They are a delicious, thin, grilled ‘pancake’ made from fermented oat flour, served hot with delicious fillings of bacon, sausages, cheese, and eggs, and have been a traditional Potteries delicacy for decades. Just watch this audio slideshow to learn how they are made (and what is happening to The Hole in the Wall) , and why Potteries folk adore them. It’s believed that the idea of oatcakes was brought back to the Potteries by soldiers of the Staffordshire Regiment who had served in India. They look like the Ethiopian injera, which is made from the indigenous cereal teff (Eragrostis tef). These points are raised in the slideshow and the accompanying article in The Guardian.

I grew up eating oatcakes, and many years ago now, I introduced my wife Steph (an Essex lass) to the delights of the Staffordshire oatcake. And she was hooked as well, found a recipe, and has been making them ever since. And we enjoyed them during the 19 years we lived in the Philippines.

She’s still making them and today, Sunday, we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast of oatcakes and sausages, and freshly-brewed coffee. What a great way to start the day!

But there’s another Staffordshire delicacy – love it or hate it (in my case, ‘hate it’) – and that’s Marmite, a yeast extract by-product of the brewing industry. Marmite comes from Burton-upon-Trent, and the ‘Marmite odour’ is quite rich at times during the summer as you drive through the town.

Investing in diversity . . . the IRRI genebank

During the mid-90s, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) coordinated a major program (funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation – SDC) to collect and conserve rice varieties in more than 20 countries by visiting areas that had not been extensively collected in previous decades. The aim was to ensure the long-term survival of varieties that had been nurtured by farmers and their husbands for generations. Over a five year period from 1996, more than 25,000 rice samples were collected, and stored in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, increasing the collection there by approximately 25%. About half of the samples (some 13,000) came from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). An IRRI staff member, Dr Seepana Appa Rao (formerly with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics – ICRISAT) spent four years traveling throughout the country, alongside Lao scientists, to make the first comprehensive collections of rice germplasm.

Duplicates samples are now conserved at IRRI, but very quickly after collection, Lao breeders started to screen the germplasm for useful traits, and use different materials to increase productivity.

Rice farmers in the Lao PDR still grow thousands of different rice varieties, from the lowland paddy fields with their patchwork of varieties to the sloping fields of the uplands where one can see many different varieties grown in complex mixtures, shown in the photos below. The complexity of varieties is also reflected in the names given by farmers [1].

And germplasm collecting was repeated in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam in Asia, and countries in East and southern Africa including Uganda and Madagascar, as well as Costa Rica in Central America (for wild rices). We invested a lot of efforts to train local scientists in germplasm collecting methods. Long-time IRRI employee (now retired) and genetic resources specialist, Eves Loresto, visited Bhutan on several occasions.

The IRRI Genebank

When I first joined IRRI in July 1991 – to head the Genetic Resources Center – I discovered that many aspects of the genebank procedures and operations were outdated or inefficient, and we set about a program of renovation and upgrading (that has been a continuous process ever since, as new technologies supersede those used before). The genebank holds more than 113,000 samples, mainly of cultivated rice varieties, with perhaps as many as 70% or so unique. Duplicate safety samples are stored at the USDA National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, and at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (operated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust). In fact, the first seeds into the Svalbard vault came from IRRI when it opened in February 2008!

The genebank now has three storage vaults (one was added in the last couple of years) for medium-term (Active) and long-term (Base) conservation. Rice varieties are grown on the IRRI farm, and carefully dried before storage. Seed viability and health is always checked, and resident seed physiologist, Fiona Hay (formerly at the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew) is investigating factors which affect long-term storage of rice seeds.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – so rather than describe how this genebank runs, do take the time to watch a 14 minute video which shows all the various operations for both cultivated and wild rices.

In 1994 there was a major review of CGIAR center genebanks. In preparation for that review we wrote a genebank operations manual, which still describes how and why the genebank works. I felt that this would be a useful legacy for whoever came after my tenure as head of the genebank. Operations can always evolve and change – but here is a basis for how rice is conserved in the most important genebank for this crop.

[1] Appa Rao, S, C Bounphanousay, JM Schiller & MT Jackson, 2002. Naming of traditional rice varieties by farmers in the Lao PDR. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 49, 83‐88.