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– to head the Genetic Resources Center – I discovered that many aspects of the genebank procedures and operations were outdated or inefficient, and we set about a program of renovation and upgrading (that has been a continuous process ever since, as new technologies supersede those used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.

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