Never have genebanks been so relevant . . . or needed

There has perhaps never been a better justification for conservation of seeds in genebanks, or ex situ conservation as it’s commonly known.

The devastating bush fires that have ravaged huge swathes of eastern Australia have highlighted the fragility of environments that are being affected adversely by the consequences of climate change. It’s a wake-up call, even though some of us were commenting on this a generation ago (and more recently in 2014).

While many news stories have emotionally focused on the impact of the fires on wildlife—the injury to and death of millions of animals—very little has appeared in the media about the impacts on plant species. One story stood out, however: the extraordinary measures that firefighters took to protect the only natural stand of ancient Wollemi pines at a secret location in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

In another story I came across, there are concerns that a wild species of sorghum native to East Gippsland in southeast Australia may now be headed towards extinction as fires swept across its habitats. Only time will tell whether this particular species has survived.

Bush fires are not uncommon in Australia and many other parts of the world. Vegetation is, however, quite resilient and, given time, often recovers to a semblance of what was there before fires ravaged the landscape, although the balance of species may be disrupted for a few years.

Clearly nature is under threat. Indeed, in an article in The Guardian on 20 January 2020 the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, is quoted as imploring ‘governments to ensure 2020 is not just another “year of conferences” on the ongoing ecological destruction of the planet, urging countries to take definitive action on deforestation, pollution and the climate crisis.’

Catastrophic fires, and other effects of environmental degradation and climate change, vividly illustrate the necessity of having a dual conservation strategy, backing up conservation in nature, or in situ conservation, with conservation of seeds in genebanks, where appropriate. It’s clear that relying in situ conservation alone is too high a risk to take.

About 25 years ago, while I was leading the genetic conservation program at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, and conserving the world’s largest and most diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species in the International Rice Genebank, vocal lobby groups were pressing hard in several international forums and the media to redirect conservation away from genebanks (they were often referred to as ‘gene morgues’) towards in situ conservation, in nature for wild species or on-farm for cultivated varieties.

The criticism of many genebanks, including some of those managed at centers of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research or CGIAR, was not unwarranted. Insufficient attention was given to applying internationally-agreed genebank standards. This was not entirely the fault of genebank managers, both inside and outside the CGIAR. They were often starved of funds, living hand to mouth, year to year as it were, and expected to manage a long-term conservation commitment on inadequate annual budgets.

Standards in the eleven CGIAR genebanks have been raised through the Genebank Platform, supported by the Crop Trust. Between them, not only do the CGIAR genebanks conserve some of the most world’s important collections of genetic resources of cereals, legumes, and roots and tubers, but these collections have been studied in depth to find useful traits, and the volume of germplasm shared annually for research and production is impressive. Just take a look at the data for the years 2012-2018.

Other international efforts like the Crop Wild Relatives Project (supported by the Government of Norway), and managed by the Crop Trust with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have focused attention on the importance of conserving the wild relatives of crop plants as they are often genetically endowed with traits not found in their domesticated derivatives. My own experience studying nematode resistance in wild potatoes from Bolivia for example illustrated the importance of wild species for crop improvement.

Today, we have a whole new suite of tools to study the crop varieties and wild species conserved in genebanks around the world. As the genome of each new species is sequenced, another door is opened on the genetic diversity of nature, how it’s organized, and how genes control different traits. Indeed an argument has recently been made to genotype all samples (or accessions in the ‘official’ parlance) in a genebank. Certainly this is an approach that was merely a dream only two decades ago.

I still argue, however, that in tandem with the molecular analysis of crop diversity, there must be an in-depth evaluation of how different varieties behave in real environments. In joint research between former colleagues of mine at The University of Birmingham (Professors Brian Ford-Lloyd and John Newbury and Dr Parminder Virk) and myself at IRRI in the 1990s, we demonstrated the predictive value of molecular markers for several quantitative characters associated with crop productivity. Somewhat derided at the time, association genetics has become an important approach to study crop diversity.

I’ve been publishing about climate change and the value of plant genetic resources for over 30 years, beginning when there was far more skepticism about this phenomenon than today. At a conference on Crop Networks, held in Wageningen in the Netherlands in December 1990, I presented a paper outlining the need for collaborative research to study germplasm collections in the face of climate change.

And in that paper I argued that widespread testing in replicated field trials would be necessary to identify useful germplasm. With the addition nowadays of molecular markers and genome-wide detailed information for many species, there is now a much better opportunity to evaluate germplasm to identify gene sources that can help protect crops against the worst ravages of climate change and maintain agricultural productivity. Even though political leaders like Donald Trump and Scott Morrison continue to deny climate change (or merely pay lip service), society as a whole cannot ignore the issue. Afterall, for a predicted global population of 9.8 billion by 2050, most of whom will not produce their own food, continued agricultural productivity is an absolute necessity. The conservation, evaluation, and use of plant genetic resources stored in the world’s genebanks is a key component of achieving that goal.

Genebanks are the future! However, in a follow-up story, I write that genebanks still face a major challenge under a changing climate. Read more here.