Morris dancing and genetic resources – an unlikely combination

I was never much good at taking exams. That is, until I studied for my Masters degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham in 1970-1971. So how come I improved?

It was exactly 50 years ago, Tuesday 1 June 1971, when I sat the first of four written exams over consecutive days. It was also the day after the Late Spring Bank Holiday, the 31st and the last Monday of May. I spent that day—all day, in fact—Morris dancing in Lichfield, a town in south Staffordshire famous for its three-spired medieval cathedral, the ‘city of philosophers’ according one of its famous sons, Samuel, Dr Johnson.

Let me backtrack a few years.

Soon after arriving in Southampton in October 1967 to begin my undergraduate studies at the university, I joined the English & Scottish Folk Dance Society in the Students’ Union, although I’d never danced before. Then, a year later, I co-founded (with Dr Joe Smartt, a genetics lecturer in the Department of Botany) the Red Stags Morris that is still dancing today although no longer associated with the university for many years now.

The Red Stags dancing outside the Arts Faculty in March 1970 at a university Open Day. I’m the second dancer from the left, facing Joe Smartt, with Dudley Savage from the Winchester Morris Men playing the fiddle.

As I described in that earlier post about the Red Stags, we were supported from the outset by the Winchester Morris Men, and during the summer term we would join them when they danced out around the villages and pubs of Hampshire. Such a beautiful county.

Each Late Spring Bank Holiday, the Winchester Morris Men would also organize a Day of Dance, beginning in late morning and lasting well into the evening, and probably visiting half a dozen villages in the process (and their hostelries). The Red Stags joined the 1969 Day of Dance around the New Forest and ending up in Winchester by early evening. By then, we’d developed some dancing skills in the Headington and Adderbury traditions and didn’t embarrass ourselves among much more accomplished dancers. Here is a group of photos taken on that particular Day of Dance, 26 May.

Move on a year. In May 1970, the Late Spring Bank Holiday (25 May) fell on the day before my Final exams were due to start. The weather was glorious, just the sort that was never conducive for exam revision. Joe Smartt encouraged me to take that last day off from revision and join the Morris tour. Peer pressure was too great. I declined, and that’s something I have regretted ever since. Those final few hours of revision didn’t help me one iota, and my exam performance over the next week was only satisfactory to say the least, not the glory I hoped for (but didn’t really expect).

Nevertheless, I was accepted on to the MSc course at Birmingham, and moved there in September 1970, full of anticipation for this new field of plant genetic resources, and looking forward to joining a new Morris side.

There were two choices in Birmingham: Jockey Men’s Morris Club or Green Man’s Morris and Sword Club [1]. I chose the latter. One of the people who’d encouraged me to join the folk dance society at Southampton, Dr Edward Johns, had moved to Birmingham and had joined Green Man a couple of years previously.

I danced with Green Man on a weekly basis for the next two years before I moved to Peru in January 1973. When I returned to the UK in 1981, I rejoined Green Man, and became Squire (club chairman) in 1982 for a year. Unfortunately I developed arthritis in my knees and my doctor discouraged me from from dancing. So, by about 1985 or ’86, my dancing days were over.

That’s me, fourth from the right.

One of Green Man’s traditions, something they did for at least 50 years, was leading the Lichfield Bower Procession (a community event dating back to the 12th century) each Late Spring Bank Holiday. This is a procession around the city, of a couple of miles at the very least. And Green Man would dance the Bower Processional, with arms outstretched and carrying leafy boughs (typically elm in the past) the whole way, but with frequent stops to take refreshment on board.

In 1971, I was again faced with the same dilemma: should I spend the last day before exams doing some last minute revision, or head off and forget my exams fears by enjoying a day of Morris dancing, and my first Lichfield Bower?

Actually, I’d more or less made the decision some months previously. Morris dancing it was. During the MSc course I had upped my game and really learnt how to study more effectively and, more importantly, how to organize myself in preparation for the written exams. Everything went to plan, and by the end of May I felt I’d done all that I could to prepare myself for the coming week of exams. I was ready and primed, so to speak.

So, without any last minute feelings of guilt, just after breakfast I joined my fellow club members traveling to Lichfield, and spent the next twelve or thirteen hours dancing, and consuming not an inconsiderable amount of beer in the process, probably at least twelve pints over the course of the day.

I don’t think I got to bed much before midnight, but then had one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever enjoyed. Not a care in the world, waking up the following morning fully refreshed and relaxed and ready to take on whatever the exam threw at me.

And the outcome? Well it’s plain to see.

During the 1980s, when I was teaching at the University of Birmingham, I gave my own students the same advice: Don’t spend the final day before exams trying to cram last minute information. Take the day off, do something completely different to take your mind of the coming exams. Relax, have a good time, and then have a good night’s sleep.

I know hindsight is a wonderful thing. I just wish I’d taken my own advice back in 1970.

[1] Sadly, in 2017 Green Man’s Morris and Sword Club decided that the side was no longer viable. With ageing members and not recruiting new blood, the club was no longer able to put up a side of six dancers and musician. Thus came to an end 60 or more years of dancers from a club that had provided two Squires of the Morris Ring, John Venables and Ray King. Click here to read a short account of how and why Green Man came to an end.

Getting the message out about genetic resources

For much of my career, I have taken a keen interest in science communication. Such that, a couple of years after I’d become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning & Coordination in 2001, I was asked to take on line management responsibility for several of IRRI’s administrative units, including the Communication and Publications Services (CPS) headed by my good friend Gene Hettel. My job changed to some degree, as did my title: Director for Program Planning & Communications.

I’ve always felt that scientists have a responsibility to explain their work to the general public in plain language. We’re fortunate here in the UK; there are several leading lights in this respect who have made their mark in the media and now represent, to a considerable extent, ‘the face of science’ nationally. None of them is shy about speaking out on matters of concern to society at large.

Sir David Attenborough (far left, above) is one of the world’s leading advocates for biodiversity conservation who also eloquently explains the threat and challenges of climate change. Professors Alice Roberts (second left, of The University of Birmingham) and Brian Cox (second right, The University of Manchester) have both made their mark in TV broadcasts in recent years, bringing fascinating programs covering a range of topics to the small screen. And then again, there’s Sir Paul Nurse (far right), Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and former President of the Royal Society. I was particularly impressed with his Richard Dimbleby Lecture, The New Enlightenment, on the BBC in 2012 about his passion for science. It’s well worth a watch.

I would never claim to be in the same league as these illustrious scientists. However, over the years I have tried—in my small way—to raise awareness of the science area with which I am most familiar: plant genetic resources and their conservation. And in this blog, I have written extensively about some of my work on potatoes at the International Potato Center in Peru and on rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, as well as training genetic resources scientists at the University of Birmingham.

So, when I was approached a few weeks ago to be interviewed and contribute to a podcast series, Plant Breeding Stories, I jumped at the chance.

The podcasts are hosted by Hannah Senior, Managing Director of PBS International, a world leading company in pollination control. So far, there have been eleven podcasts in two series, with mine broadcast for the first time just a couple of days ago. In this clip, Hannah explains the rationale for the series.

Just click on the image below to listen to our 35 minute conversation about genetic resources, genebanks, and their importance for plant breeding and food security. Oh, and a little about me and how I got into genetic resources work in the first place.

I hope you find the podcast interesting, and even a little bit enlightening. A transcript of the broadcast can be downloaded here. Thanks for listening.

Genetic resources, agriculture, and science

I spent much of my career working to conserve the genetic resources of crops and their wild relatives, attached to two international agricultural research centers, CIP in Peru and IRRI in the Philippines.

Genetic resources
Biodiversity – included here are posts about the diversity of crops and their wild relatives, and some aspects of using diversity.

University of Birmingham – I studied and taught at Birmingham which was a world center for training in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.

Climate change – these posts concern the preparation of a book on genetic resources and climate change.

Genebanking – conserving plant genetic resources in perpetuity, and some of the challenges that genebank managers face.

Inside the International Rice Genebank, with genebank manager Pola de Guzman

Nikolai Vavilov

Career – how I got started in the world of genetic conservation.


Several posts about working in international agricultural research and management over 40 years.

Some general science posts, especially botany.

Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (3) Becoming a genebanker in the 1990s, and beyond

My decision to leave a tenured position at the University of Birmingham in June 1991 was not made lightly. I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, and I’d found my ‘home’ in the Plant Genetics Research Group following the reorganization of the School of Biological Sciences a couple of years earlier.

But I wasn’t particularly happy. Towards the end of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government had become hostile to the university sector, demanding significant changes in the way they operated before acceding to any improvements in pay and conditions. Some of the changes then forced on the university system still bedevil it to this day.

I felt as though I was treading water, trying to keep my head above the surface. I had a significant teaching load, research was ticking along, PhD and MSc students were moving through the system, but still the university demanded more. So when an announcement of a new position as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines landed on my desk in September 1990, it certainly caught my interest. I discussed such a potential momentous change with Steph, and with a couple of colleagues at the university.

Nothing venture, nothing gained, I formally submitted an application to IRRI and, as they say, the rest is history. However, I never expected to spend the next 19 years in the Philippines.

Since 1971, I’d worked almost full time in various aspects of conservation and use of plant genetic resources. I’d collected potato germplasm in Peru and the Canary Islands while at Birmingham, learned the basics of potato agronomy and production, worked alongside farmers, helped train the next generation of genetic conservation specialists, and was familiar with the network of international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

What I had never done was manage a genebank or headed a department with tens of staff at all professional levels. Because the position in at IRRI involved both of these. The head would be expected to provide strategic leadership for GRC and its three component units: the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC), the genebank; the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER); and the Seed Health Unit (SHU). However, only the genebank would be under the day-to-day management of the GRC head. Both INGER and the SHU would be managed by project leaders, while being amalgamated into a single organizational unit, the Genetic Resources Center.

I was unable to join IRRI before 1 July 1991 due to teaching and examination commitments at the university that I was obliged to fulfill. Nevertheless, in April I represented IRRI at an important genetic resources meeting at FAO in Rome, where I first met the incoming Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (soon to become the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute or IPGRI), Dr Geoff Hawtin, with whom I’ve retained a friendship ever since.

On arrival at IRRI, I discovered that the SHU had been removed from GRC, a wise decision in my opinion, but not driven I eventually discerned by real ‘conflict of interest’ concerns, rather internal politics. However, given that the SHU was (and is) responsible, in coordination with the Philippines plant health authorities, to monitor all imports and exports of rice seeds at IRRI, it seemed prudential to me not to be seen as both ‘gamekeeper and poacher’, to coin a phrase. After all the daily business of the IRGC and INGER was movement of healthy seeds across borders.

Klaus Lampe

My focus was on the genebank, its management and role within an institute that itself was undergoing some significant changes, 30 years after it had been founded, under its fifth Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, who had hired me. He made it clear that the head of GRC would not only be expected to bring IRGC and INGER effectively into a single organizational unit, but also complete a ‘root and branch’ overhaul of the genebank’s operations and procedures, long overdue.

Since INGER had its own leader, an experienced rice breeder Dr DV Seshu, somewhat older than myself, I could leave the running of that network in his hands, and only concern myself with INGER within the context of the new GRC structure and personnel policies. Life was not easy. My INGER colleagues dragged their feet, and had to be ‘encouraged’ to accept the new GRC reality that reduced the freewheeling autonomy they had become accustomed to over the previous 20 years or so, on a budget of about USD1 million a year provided by the United Nations Development Program or UNDP.

When interviewing for the GRC position I had also queried why no germplasm research component had been considered as part of the job description. I made it clear that if I was considered for the position, I would expect to develop a research program on rice genetic resources. That indeed became the situation.

Once in post at IRRI, I asked lots of questions. For at least six months until the end of 1991, I made no decisions about changes in direction for the genebank until I better understood how it operated and what constraints it faced. I also had to size up the caliber of staff, and develop a plan for further staff recruitment. I did persuade IRRI management to increase resource allocation to the genebank, and we were then able to hire technical staff to support many time critical areas.

But one easy decision I did make early on was to change the name of the genebank.  As I’ve already mentioned, its name was the ‘International Rice Germplasm Center’, but it didn’t seem logical to place one center within another, IRGC in GRC. So we changed its name to the ‘International Rice Genebank’, while retaining the acronym IRGC (which was used for all accessions in the germplasm collection) to refer to International Rice Genebank Collection.

In various blog posts over the past year or so, I have written extensively about the genebank at IRRI, so I shall not repeat those details here, but provide a summary only.

I realized very quickly that each staff member had to have specific responsibilities and accountability. We needed a team of mutually-supportive professionals. In a recent email from one of my staff, he mentioned that the genebank today was reaping the harvest of the ‘seeds I’d sown’ 25 years ago. But, as I replied, one has to have good seeds to begin with. And the GRC staff were (and are) in my opinion quite exceptional.

In terms of seed management, we beefed up the procedures to regenerate and dry seeds, developed protocols for routine seed viability testing, and eliminated duplicate samples of genebank accessions that were stored in different locations, establishing an Active Collection (at +4ºC, or thereabouts) and a Base Collection (held at -18ºC). Pola de Guzman was made Genebank Manager, and Ato Reaño took responsibility for all field operations. Our aim was not only to improve the quality of seed being conserved in the genebank, but also to eliminate (in the shortest time possible) the large backlog of samples to be processed and added to the collection.

Dr Kameswara Rao (from IRRI’s sister center ICRISAT, based in Hyderabad, India) joined GRC to work on the relationship between seed quality and seed growing environment. He had received his PhD from the University of Reading, and this research had started as a collaboration with Professor Richard Ellis there. Rao’s work led to some significant changes to our seed production protocols.

Since I retired, I have been impressed to see how research on seed physiology and conservation, led by Dr Fiona Hay (now at Aarhus University in Denmark) has moved on yet again. Take a look at this story I posted in 2015.

Screen house space for the valuable wild species collection was doubled, and Soccie Almazan appointed as  wild species curator.

One of the most critical issues I had to address was data management, which was in quite a chaotic state, with data on the Asian rice samples (known as Oryza sativa), the African rices (O. glaberrima), and the remaining 20+ wild species managed in separate databases that could not ‘talk’ to each another. We needed a unified data system, handling all aspects of genebank management, germplasm regeneration, characterization and evaluation, and germplasm exchange. We spent about three years building that system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). It was complicated because data had been coded differently for the two cultivated and wild species, that I have written about here. That’s a genebank lesson that needs to be better appreciated in the genebank community. My colleagues Adel Alcantara, Vanji Guevarra, and Myrna Oliva did a splendid job, which was methodical and thorough.

In 1995 we released the first edition of a genebank operations manual for the International Rice Genebank, something that other genebanks have only recently got round to.

Our germplasm research focused on four areas:

  • seed conservation (with Richard Ellis at the University of Reading, among others);
  • the use of molecular markers to better manage and use the rice collection (with colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich);
  • biosystematics of rice, concentrating on the closest wild relative species (led by Dr Bao-Rong Lu and supported by Yvette Naredo and the late Amy Juliano);
  • on farm conservation – a project led by French geneticist Dr Jean-Louis Pham and social anthropologists Dr Mauricio Bellon and Steve Morin.

At the beginning of the 1990s there were no genome data to support the molecular characterization of rice. Our work with molecular markers was among use these to study a germplasm collection. The research we published on association analysis is probably the first paper that showed this relationship between markers and morphological characteristics or traits.

In 1994, I developed a 5-year project proposal for almost USD3.3 million that we submitted for support to the Swiss Development Cooperation. The three project components included:

  • germplasm exploration (165 collecting missions in 22 countries), with about half of the germplasm collected in Laos; most of the collected germplasm was duplicated at that time in the International Rice Genebank;
  • training: 48 courses or on-the-job opportunities between 1995 and 1999 in 14 countries or at IRRI in Los Baños, for more than 670 national program staff;
  • on farm conservation to:
    • to increase knowledge on farmers’ management of rice diversity, the factors that
      influence it, and its genetic implications;
    • to identify strategies to involve farmers’ managed systems in the overall conservation of
      rice genetic resources.

I was ably assisted in the day-to-day management of the project by my colleague Eves Loresto, a long-time employee at IRRI who sadly passed away a few years back.

When I joined IRRI in 1991 there were just under 79,000 rice samples in the genebank. Through the Swiss-funded project we increased the collection by more than 30%. Since I left the genebank in 2001 that number has increased to over 136,000 making it the largest collection of rice germplasm in the world.

We conducted training courses in many countries in Asia and Africa. The on-farm research was based in the Philippines, Vietnam, and eastern India. It was one of the first projects to bring together a population geneticist and a social anthropologist working side-by-side to understand how, why, and when farmers grew different rice varieties, and what incentives (if any) would induce them to continue to grow them.

The final report of this 5-year project can be read here. We released the report in 2000 on an interactive CD-ROM, including almost 1000 images taken at many of the project sites, training courses, or during germplasm exploration. However, the links in the report are not active on this blog.

During my 10 year tenure of GRC, I authored/coauthored 33 research papers on various aspects of rice genetic resources, 1 co-edited book, 14 book chapters, and 23 papers in the so-called ‘grey’ literature, as well as making 33 conference presentations. Check out all the details in this longer list, and there are links to PDF files for many of the publications.

In 1993 I was elected chair of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources, and worked closely with Geoff Hawtin at IPGRI, and his deputy Masa Iwanaga (an old colleague from CIP), to develop the CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Program or SGRP. Under the auspices of the SGRP I organized a workshop in 1999 on the application of comparative genetics to genebank collections.

Professor John Barton

With the late John Barton, Professor of Law at Stanford University, we developed IRRI’s first policy on intellectual property rights focusing on the management, exchange and use of rice genetic resources. This was later expanded into a policy document covering all aspects of IRRI’s research.

The 1990s were a busy decade, germplasm-wise, at IRRI and in the wider genetic resources community. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force in 1993, and many countries were enacting their own legislation (such as Executive Order 247 in the Philippines in 1995) governing access to and use sovereign genetic resources. It’s remarkable therefore that we were able to accomplish so much collecting between 1995 and 2000, and that national programs had trust in the IRG to safely conserve duplicate samples from national collections.

Ron Cantrell

All good things come to an end, and in January 2001 I was asked by then Director General Ron Cantrell to leave GRC and become the institute’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (that became Communications two years later as I took on line management responsibility for Communication and Publications Services, IT, and the library). On 30 April, I said ‘goodbye’ to my GRC colleagues to move to my new office across the IRRI campus, although I kept a watching brief over GRC for the next year until my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, arrived in Los Baños.

Listen to Ruaraidh and his staff talking about the genebank.

So, after a decade with GRC I moved into IRRI’s senior management team and set about bringing a modicum of rationale to the institute’s resource mobilization initiatives, and management of its overall research project portfolio. I described here how it all started. The staff I was able to recruit were outstanding. Running DPPC was a bit like running a genebank: there were many individual processes and procedures to manage the various research projects, report back to donors, submit grant proposals and the like. Research projects were like ‘genebank accessions’ – all tied together by an efficient data management system that we built in an initiative led by Eric Clutario (seen standing on the left below next to me).

From my DPPC vantage point, it was interesting to watch Ruaraidh take GRC to the next level, adding a new cold storage room, and using bar-coding to label all seed packets, a great addition to the data management effort. With Ken McNally’s genomics research, IRRI has been at the forefront of studies to explore the diversity of genetic diversity in germplasm collections.

Last October, the International Rice Genebank was the first to receive in-perpetuity funding from the Crop Trust. I’d like to think that the significant changes we made in the 1990s to the genebank and management of rice germplasm kept IRRI ahead of the curve, and contributed to its selection for this funding.

I completed a few publications during this period, and finally retired from IRRI at the end of April 2010. Since retirement I have co-edited a second book on climate change and genetic resources, led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program, and was honored by HM The Queen as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 2012 for my work at IRRI.

So, as 2018 draws to a close, I can look back on almost 50 years involvement in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. What an interesting—and fulfilling—journey it has been.





Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (2) Training the next generation of specialists in the 1980s

When, in the mid- to late-60s, Jack Hawkes was planning a one-year MSc course, Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR), at the University of Birmingham (in the Department of Botany), Sir Otto Frankel (that doyen of the genetic resources movement) predicted that the course would probably have a lifetime of just 20 years, at most. By then, he assumed, all the persons who needed such training would have passed through the university’s doors. Job done! Well, it didn’t turn out quite that way.

The first cohort of four students graduated in September 1970, when I (and four others) arrived at the university to begin our careers in plant genetic resources. In 1989, the course celebrated its 20th anniversary. But there was still a demand, and Birmingham would continue to offer graduate training (and short course modules) in genetic resources for the next 15 or so years before dwindling applications and staff retirements made the course no longer viable.

Over its lifetime, I guess at least 500 MSc and Short Course students from more than 100 countries received their training in genetic conservation and use. So, for many years, the University of Birmingham lay at the heart of the growing genetic resources movement, and played a pivotal role in ensuring that national programs worldwide had the trained personnel to set up and sustain genetic conservation of local crops and wild species. Many Birmingham graduates went on to lead national genetic resources programs, as evidenced by the number who attended the 4th International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources convened by FAO in Leipzig in June 1996.

Birmingham PGR students at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie, in the middle of the front row, standing next to Andrea Clausen (Argentina) on his left. Geoff Hawtin, then Director General of IPGRI is fourth from the right (On the back row), and Lyndsey Withers (who gave a course on in vitro conservation to Birmingham students) is second from the right on the front row (standing in between Liz Matos (from Angola) on her left, and the late Rosa Kambuou (Papua New Guinea).

In April 1981, I joined that training effort as a faculty member at the university. For the previous eight years, I had been working for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Costa Rica. Around September 1980 (a couple months before I left Costa Rica to return to Lima and my next assignment with CIP), I was made aware that a Lectureship had just been advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (as the Department of Botany had been renamed) to contribute to the MSc course curriculum.

Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 after he reached the mandatory retirement age (for full professors) of 67. He persuaded the university to create a lectureship in his department to cover some of the important topics that he would vacate, primarily in crop diversity and evolution.

After my arrival in Birmingham, I didn’t have any specific duties for first four months. With the intake of the 1981-82 cohort, however, it was ‘full steam ahead’ and my teaching load remained much the same for the next decade. My teaching focused on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm exploration, and agricultural systems, although I made some small contributions to other topics as well.

I also took on the role of Short Course Tutor for those who came to study on one or both of the semester modules (about 12 weeks each).

Since its inception in 1969, the overall structure of the course remained much the same, with about nine months of theory, followed by written examinations. The curriculum varied to some degree over the lifetime of the course, as did the content as new biology opened new opportunities to study, conserve, and use genetic resources.

Following the examinations, all students completed a three-month research project and submitted a dissertation around the middle of September, which was examined by an external examiner. The first external examiner, from 1970-1972, was Professor Norman Simmonds, then Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station, and a widely respected plant breeder and potato and banana expert.

Financial support for students came from a variety of sources. The year after I graduated, the course was recognized by one of the UK research councils (I don’t remember which) for studentship support, and annually three or four British students were funded in this way through the 1970s and 80s. By the late 1970s, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources¹ (IBPGR) funded many of the students coming from overseas, and had also agreed an annual grant to the department that, among other aspects, funded a lectureship in seed physiology and conservation (held by Dr Pauline Mumford). A few students were self-funded.

Here are some of the classes from 1978 to 1988; names of students can be found in this file. Do you recognize anyone?

L: Class of 1978 | R: Class of 1979

L: Class of 1984 | R: Class of 1985

L: Class of 1986 | Class of 1987

L: Class of 1988 | R: Short Course participants, Autumn semester 1987

The first group of students that I had direct contact with, in the autumn of 1981, came from Bangladesh, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Portugal, Turkey, and Uruguay. After nearly 40 years I can’t remember all their names, unfortunately.

The MSc class of 1982: L-R: Ghani Yunus (Malaysia), ?? (Uruguay), Rainer Freund (Germany), Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Dr Pauline Mumford (IBPGR-funded lecturer), ?? (Bangladesh), ?? (Bangladesh), Maria Texeira (Portugal), ?? (Indonesia).

Over the decade I remained at Birmingham, I must have supervised the dissertation projects of about 20-25 students, quite an intensive commitment during the summer months. Since my main interest was crop diversity and biosystematics, several students ran projects on potatoes and Lathyrus. I curated the Hawkes collection of wild potato species, and had also assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species from different countries and diverse environments. Some students wanted to work on crops and species important in their countries and, whenever possible, we tried to accommodate their interests. Even with glasshouse facilities it was not always possible to grow many tropical species at Birmingham². In any case, the important issue was for students to gain experience in designing and executing projects, and evaluating germplasm effectively. Two students from Uganda for example, studied the resistance of wild potatoes from Bolivia to the potato cyst nematode, in collaboration with the Nematology Department at Rothamsted Experiment Station.

Several students stayed on to complete PhD degrees under my supervision, or jointly supervised with my colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd (who was the MSc Course Tutor), and I have written more about that here.

Immediately on joining the department in 1981, Jack asked me to take on the supervision of two of his students, Lynne Woodwards and Adi Damania who were half way through their research. Lynne competed her study of the non-blackening trait in a tetraploid (2n=4x=48 chromosomes) wild potato species from Mexico, Solanum hjertingii in 1982. Adi split his time between Birmingham and the Germplasm Institute in Bari, Italy, where he was co-supervised by Professor Enrico Porceddu, studying barley and wheat landraces from Nepal and Yemen. One of the methods he used was the separation of seed proteins using gel electrophoresis. His PhD was completed in 1983.

Lynne’s research on Solanum hjertingii was continued by Ian Gubb, in collaboration with the Institute of Food Research in Norwich.

Two Peruvian students, Rene Chavez (1978) and Carlos Arbizu (1979) completed their PhD theses in 1984 and 1990 respectively. They did all their experimental work at CIP in Lima, studying wide crosses in potato breeding, and wild potatoes as sources of virus resistance.

Malaysian student Ghani Yunus (1982) returned to Birmingham around 1986 to commence his PhD and continued his study of the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus) that he began for his MSc dissertation.

While the MSc course comprised my main teaching load, I also had some undergraduate teaching commitments. I did no First Year teaching, thank goodness! In the Summer Semester I had a 50% commitment to a Flowering Plant Taxonomy module as part of the Second Year Plant Biology stream. I also gave half a dozen lectures on agricultural systems as part of a Second Year Common Course attended by all Biological Sciences students, and I eventually became chair of that course.

With Brian, we offered a Third (Final) Year option in conservation and use of genetic resources under the Plant Biology degree. I guess during the 1980s some 40 students (maybe more) chose that option. The five-week module comprised about 20-25 lectures, and each student also had to undertake an practical project as well. It was quite a challenge to devise and supervise so many ‘doable’ projects during such a short period.

While all this was going on, I also had a couple of research projects on potatoes. The first, on true potato seed, was in collaboration with CIP in Peru and the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. Over the project’s five-year life, I traveled to Lima at least once a year. This also gave me an opportunity to check on progress of my PhD students there.

In another project (with Brian) funded by industry, we investigated the opportunity for using somaclonal variation to identify genotypes resistant to low temperature sweetening in potatoes. The research had an important spin-off however for the genetic conservation of vegetatively-propagated crops like potatoes, as we demonstrated that genetic changes do occur during in vitro or tissue culture.

Knowing of my annual trips to Peru, the chocolate and confectionery manufacturers in the UK asked me to scope the possibility of establishing a field genebank in Peru of cacao (cocoa) trees in the northeast of the country. The industry had funded a project like this in Ecuador, and wanted to replicate it in Peru. Regrettably, the security situation deteriorated markedly in Peru (due to the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso terrorist group), and the project never went ahead.

Brian and I collaborated a good deal during the 1980s, in teaching, research, and publishing.

Around 1983 he and I had the idea of writing a short general text about genetic resources and their conservation. As far as we could determine there were no books of this nature suitable for both undergraduates and postgraduates. Having approached the publisher Edward Arnold, we set about putting our ideas down on paper. The book appeared in 1986, with a print run of 3000, which quickly sold out. After Edward Arnold was taken over by Cambridge University Press, our modest volume was re-issued in a digitally printed version in 2010.

In 1988, we organized the first International Workshop on Plant Genetic Resources at Birmingham, on in situ conservation. The topic of the second two-day workshop, in April 1989, focused on climate change and genetic resources. We were ahead of our time! Proceedings from the workshop were published by Belhaven Press in 1990. It was a theme that my co-editors and I returned to in 2014, published by CAB International.

Around 1989, however, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with university life, and had begun to think about seeking other opportunities, although none seemed to come along. Until September 1990, that is. One morning, I received in the mail a copy of a recruitment announcement for Head of the Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. To this day I have no idea who sent me this announcement, as there was no cover note.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided to submit my application. After all, IRRI was a sister center of CIP, and I was very familiar with the international agricultural research centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Personally, I knew it would be a huge opportunity, but also a challenge for Steph and our two daughters Hannah (13) and Philippa (9). But apply I did, and went for an interview at the beginning of January 1991, learning three weeks later that I was the preferred candidate of three interviewed. All three of us were ex-Birmingham MSc and PhD, having completed our theses under the supervision of Jack Hawkes. My ‘rivals’ were managing genebanks in the UK and Nigeria. I had no genebank experience per se.

I was about to become a genebanker, but I couldn’t join the institute quite as early as IRRI management desired. I still had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill for that academic year, which would not be finished until the end of June. Nevertheless, IRRI did ask me to represent the institute at a meeting in April of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, the first of many that I would attend over the next decade.

Friday 28 June was my last day at the university. Two days later I was on my way to Manila, to open the next chapter of my genetic resources adventure.

¹ Around 1990, IBPGR became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and later, Bioversity International, expanding its headquarters in Rome.

² One of the students in my 1970-71 class, Folu Ogbe from Nigeria, undertook a project on West African rice and part of one glasshouse was converted to a ‘rice paddy’!



Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (1) Starting out in South America in the 1970s

Nikolai Vavilov

Russian geneticist and plant breeder Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) is a hero of mine. He died, a Soviet prisoner, five years before I was born.

Until I began my graduate studies in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (i.e., crops and their wild relatives) almost 50 years ago in September 1970, his name was unknown to me. Nevertheless, Vavilov’s prodigious publications influenced the career I subsequently forged for myself in genetic conservation.

Jack Hawkes

At the same time I was equally influenced by my mentor and PhD supervisor Professor Jack Hawkes, at Birmingham, who met Vavilov in St Petersburg in 1938.

Vavilov undoubtedly laid the foundations for the discipline of genetic resources —the collection, conservation, evaluation, and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). It’s not for nothing that he is widely regarded as the Father of Plant Genetic Resources.

Almost 76 years on from his death, we now understand much more about the genetic diversity of crops than we ever dreamed possible, even as recently as the turn of the Millennium, thanks to developments in molecular biology and genomics. The sequencing of crop genomes (which seems to get cheaper and easier by the day) opens up significant opportunities for not only understanding how diversity is distributed among crops and species, but how it functions and can be used to breed new crop varieties that will feed a growing world population struggling under the threat of environmental challenges such as climate change.

These tools were not available to Vavilov. He used his considerable intellect and powers of observation to understand the diversity of many crop species (and their wild relatives) that he and his associates collected around the world. Which student of genetic resources can fail to be impressed by Vavilov’s theories on the origins of crops and how they varied among regions.

In my own small way, I followed in Vavilov’s footsteps for the next 40 years. I can’t deny that I was fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time. I had some of the best connections. I met some of the leading lights such as Sir Otto Frankel, Erna Bennett, and Jack Harlan, to name just three. I became involved in genetic conservation just as the world was beginning to take notice.

Knowing of my ambition to work overseas (particularly in South America), Jack Hawkes had me in mind in early 1971 when asked by Dr Richard Sawyer, the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP, based in Lima, Peru) to propose someone to join the newly-founded center to curate the center’s collection of Andean potato varieties. This would be just a one-year appointment while a Peruvian scientist received MSc training at Birmingham. Once I completed the MSc training in the autumn of 1971, I had some of the expertise and skills needed for that task, but lacked practical experience. I was all set to get on the plane. However, my recruitment to CIP was delayed until January 1973 and I had, in the interim, commenced a PhD project.

I embarked on a career in international agricultural research for development almost by serendipity. One year became a lifetime. The conservation and use of plant genetic resources became the focus of my work in two international agricultural research centers (CIP and IRRI) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and during the 1980s at the University of Birmingham.

My first interest were grain legumes (beans, peas, etc.), and I completed my MSc dissertation studying the diversity and origin of the lentil, Lens culinaris whose origin, in 1970, was largely speculation.

Trevor Williams

Trevor Williams, the MSc Course tutor, supervised my dissertation. He left Birmingham around 1977 to become the head of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in Rome, that in turn became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and continues today as Bioversity International.

Joe Smartt

I guess that interest in legume species had been sparked by Joe Smartt at the University of Southampton, who taught me genetics and encouraged me in the first instance to apply for a place to study at Birmingham in 1970.

But the cold reality (after I’d completed my MSc in the autumn of 1971) was that continuing on to a PhD on lentils was never going to be funded. So, when offered the opportunity to work in South America, I turned my allegiance to potatoes and, having just turned 24, joined CIP as Associate Taxonomist.

From the outset, it was agreed that my PhD research project, studying the diversity and origin, and breeding relationships of a group of triploid (with three sets of chromosomes) potato varieties that were known scientifically as Solanum x chaucha, would be my main contribution to the center’s research program. But (and this was no hardship) I also had to take time each year to travel round Peru and collect local varieties of potatoes to add to CIP’s germplasm collection.

I explored the northern departments of Ancash and La Libertad (with my colleague Zósimo Huamán) in May 1973, and Cajamarca (on my own with a driver) a year later. Each trip lasted almost a month. I don’t recall how many new samples these trips added to CIP’s growing germplasm collection, just a couple of hundred at most.

Collecting in Ancash with Zosimo Huaman in May 1973.

Collecting potatoes from a farmer in Cajamarca, northern Peru in May 1974 (L); and getting ready to ride off to a nearby village, just north of Cuzco, in February 1974 (R).

In February 1974, I spent a couple of weeks in the south of Peru, in the department of Puno, studying the dynamics of potato cultivation on terraces in the village of Cuyo-Cuyo.

Potato terraces at Cuyo Cuyo in Puno, southern Peru.

I made just one short trip with Jack Hawkes (and another CIP colleague, Juan Landeo) to collect wild potatoes in central Peru (Depts. of Cerro de Pasco, Huánuco, and Lima). It was fascinating to watch ‘the master’ at work. After all, Jack had been collecting wild potatoes the length of the Americas since 1939, and instinctively knew where to find them. Knowing their ecological preferences, he could almost ‘smell out’ each species.

With Jack Hawkes, collecting Solanum multidissectum in the central Andes north of Lima, early 1975.

My research (and Zósimo’s) contributed to a better understanding of potato diversity in the germplasm collection, and the identification of duplicate clones. During the 1980s the size of the collection maintained as tubers was reduced, while seeds (often referred to as true potato seed, or TPS) was collected for most samples.

Potato varieties (representative ‘morphotypes’) of Solanum x chaucha that formed part of my PhD study. L-R, first row: Duraznillo, Huayro, Garhuash Shuito, Puca Shuito, Yana Shuito L-R, second row: Komar Ñahuichi, Pishpita, Surimana, Piña, Manzana, Morhuarma L-R, third row: Tarmeña, Ccusi, Yuracc Incalo L-R, fourth row: Collo, Rucunag, Hayaparara, Rodeñas

Roger Rowe

Dr Roger Rowe was my department head at CIP, and he became my ‘local’ PhD co-supervisor. A maize geneticist by training, Roger joined CIP in July 1973 as Head of the Department of Breeding & Genetics. Immediately prior to joining CIP, he led the USDA’s Inter-Regional Potato Introduction Project IR-1(now National Research Support Program-6, NRSP-6) at the Potato Introduction Station in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

Although CIP’s headquarters is at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of Lima, much of my work was carried out in Huancayo, a six hour drive winding up through the Andes, where CIP established its highland field station. This is where we annually grew the potato collection.

Aerial view of the potato germplasm collection at the San Lorenzo station of CIP, near Huancayo in the Mantaro Valley, central Peru, in the mid-1970s.

During the main growing season, from about mid-November to late April  (coinciding with the seasonal rainfall), I’d spend much of every week in Huancayo, making crosses and evaluating different varieties for morphological variation. This is where I learned not only all the practical aspects of conservation of a vegetatively-propagated crop, and many of the phytosanitary implications therein, but I also learned how to grow a crop of potatoes. Then back in Lima, I studied the variation in tuber proteins using a tool called polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (that, I guess, is hardly used any more) by separating these proteins across a gel concentration gradient, as shown diagrammatically in the so-called electrophoregrams below. Compared to what we can achieve today using a range of molecular markers, this technique was really rather crude.

Jack Hawkes visited CIP two or three times while I was working in Lima, and we would walk around the germplasm collection in Huancayo, discussing different aspects of my research, the potato varieties I was studying, and the results of the various crossing experiments.

With Jack Hawkes in the germplasm collection in Huancayo in January 1975 (L); and (R), discussing aspects of my research with Carlos Ochoa in a screenhouse at CIP in La Molina (in mid-1973).

I was also fortunate (although I realized it less at the time) to have another potato expert to hand: Professor Carlos Ochoa, who joined CIP (from the National Agrarian University across the road from CIP) as Head of Taxonomy.

Well, three years passed all too quickly, and by the end of May 1975, Steph and I were back in Birmingham for a few months while I wrote up and defended my dissertation. This was all done and dusted by the end of October that year, and the PhD was conferred at a congregation held at the university in December.

With Jack Hawkes (L) and Trevor Williams (R) after the degree congregation on 12 December 1975 at the University of Birmingham.

With that, the first chapter in my genetic resources career came to a close. But there was much more in store . . .

I remained with CIP for the next five years, but not in Lima. Richard Sawyer asked me to join the center’s Regional Research Program (formerly Outreach Program), initially as a post-doctoral fellow, the first to be based outside headquarters. Thus, in April 1976 (only 27 years old) I was posted to Turrialba, Costa Rica (based at a regional research center, CATIE) to set up a research project aimed at adapting potatoes to warm, humid conditions of the tropics. A year later I was asked to lead the regional program that covered Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

CATIE had its own germplasm collections, and just after I arrived there, a German-funded project, headed by Costarrican scientist Dr Jorge León, was initiated to strengthen the ongoing work on cacao, coffee, and pejibaye or peach palm, and other species. Among the young scientists assigned to that project was Jan Engels, who later moved to Bioversity International in Rome (formerly IBPGR, then IPGRI), with whom I have remained in contact all these years and published together. So although I was not directly involved in genetic conservation at this time, I still had the opportunity to observe, discuss and learn about crops that had been beyond my immediate experience.

It wasn’t long before my own work took a dramatically different turn. In July 1977, in the process of evaluating around 100 potato varieties and clones (from a collection maintained in Toluca, Mexico) for heat adaptation (no potatoes had ever been grown in Turrialba before), my potato plots were affected by an insidious disease called bacterial wilt (caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum).

(L) Potato plants showing typical symptoms of bacterial wilt. (R) An infected tuber exuding the bacterium in its vascular system.

Turrialba soon became a ‘hot spot’ for evaluating potato germplasm for resistance against bacterial disease, and this and some agronomic aspects of bacterial wilt control became the focus of much of my research over the next four years. I earlier wrote about this work in more detail.

This bacterial wilt work gave me a good grounding in how to carefully evaluate germplasm, and we went on to look at resistance to late blight disease (caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans – the pathogen that caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, and which continues to be a scourge of potato production worldwide), and the viruses PVX, PVY, and PLRV.

One of the most satisfying aspects of my work at this time was the development and testing of rapid multiplication techniques, so important to bulk up healthy seed of this crop.

My good friend and seed production specialist colleague Jim Bryan spent a year with me in Costa Rica on this project.

Throughout this period I was, of course, working more on the production side, learning about the issues that farmers, especially small farmers, face on a daily basis. It gave me an appreciation of how the effective use of genetic resources can raise the welfare of farmers and their families through the release of higher productivity varieties, among others.

I suppose one activity that particularly helped me to hone my management skills was the setting up of PRECODEPA in 1978, a regional cooperative potato project involving six countries, from Mexico to Panama and the Dominican Republic. Funded by the Swiss, I had to coordinate and support research and production activities in a range of national agricultural research institutes. It was, I believe, the first consortium set up in the CGIAR, and became a model for other centers to follow.

I should add that PRECODEPA went from strength to strength. It continued for at least 25 years, funded throughout by the Swiss, and expanding to include other countries in Central America and the Caribbean.

However, by the end of 1980 I felt that I had personally achieved in Costa Rica and the region as much as I had hoped for and could be expected; it was time for someone else to take the reins. In any case, I was looking for a new challenge, and moved back to Lima (38 years ago today) to discuss options with CIP management.

It seemed I would be headed for pastures new, the southern cone of South America perhaps, even the Far East in the Philippines. But fate stepped in, and at the end of March 1981, Steph, daughter Hannah (almost three) and I were on our way back to the UK. To Birmingham in fact, where I had accepted a Lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology.

The subsequent decade at Birmingham opened up a whole new set of genetic resources opportunities . . .



The Birmingham Class of ’71: plant genetic resources pioneers

Pioneers. That’s what we were. Or, at least, that’s what we thought we were.

Five individuals arriving at The University of Birmingham’s Department of Botany in September 1970 to study on the one-year MSc degree course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR).

Professor Jack Hawkes was the Course Leader, supported by Dr Trevor Williams (as Course Tutor) [1].

Professor Jack Hawkes (L) and Dr Trevor Williams (R)

The MSc course had its first intake (of four students from Canada, Brazil, and the UK) in September 1969. Twenty years later (which was celebrated at the time), hundreds of students had received training in genetic conservation at Birmingham. The course would continue to flourish for a further decade or so, but by the early 2000s there was less demand, limited financial resources to support students, and many of the staff at the university who were the lynch-pins of teaching on the course had moved on or retired.

However, the course had made its impact. There is no doubt of that. Birmingham genetic resources graduates were working all around the world, leading collection and conservation efforts at national levels and, in many cases, helping their countries—and the world—to set policy for the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). At the FAO conference on PGRFA held in Leipzig, Germany in 1996, for example, about 50 of the national delegations were led by, or had members, who had received training at Birmingham.

Former Birmingham MSc and Short Course PGR students (and two staff from IPGRI), at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie in the middle of the front row. Just two former students who attended the conference do not feature in this photo.

The Class of ’71
So, in September 1970, who comprised the second CUPGR cohort? We came from five countries:

  • Felix Taborda-Romero from Venezuela
  • Altaf-ur-Rehman Rao from Pakistan
  • Ayla Sencer from Turkey
  • Folu Dania-Ogbe from Nigeria
  • Mike Jackson (me!) from the UK

Having just graduated a couple of months earlier from the University of Southampton with a BSc degree in Botany and Geography, I was the youngest of the group, just approaching my 22nd birthday. Folu was almost four years my senior, and Ayla was perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, but I’m not sure. Altaf was 34, and Felix the ‘elder’ of the class, at 38.

I guess Ayla was the only one with a specific genetic resources background, coming to Birmingham from an agricultural research institute near Izmir, and having already been involved with conservation work. Felix and Altaf were both academics. As recent graduates, Folu and I were just starting to think about a career in this new field of plant genetic resources. We wouldn’t be disappointed!

Studying alongside mature students who were not only older than my eldest brother (nine years my senior), but who had taken a year out from their jobs to study for a higher degree, was a novel experience for me. There was also a language barrier, to some extent. Felix probably had the weakest English skills; Ayla had already made some good progress before arriving in Birmingham but she struggled with some aspects of the language. Both Altaf and Folu spoke English fluently as a second language.

We occupied a small laboratory on the north corridor, first floor of the School of Biological Sciences building, just a couple of doors down from where Jack, as Mason Professor of Botany and Head of Department, had his office, and just across from Trevor’s office. In 1981, when I returned to Birmingham as Lecturer in Plant Biology, that same room became my research laboratory for six or seven years.

Folu and myself had desk space on one side of the lab, and the others on the other side. We spent a lot of time huddled together in that room. In order to save us time hunting for literature in the university library, we had access to a comprehensive collection of photocopies of many, if not most, of the scientific papers on the prodigious reading lists given to us.

Richard Lester

We had a heavy schedule of lectures, in crop evolution, taxonomic methods, economic botany (from Dr Richard Lester), population genetics and statistics (from staff of the Department of Genetics), computer programming and data management (in its infancy then), germplasm collection, and conservation, among others. At the end of the course I felt that the lecture load during that one year was equivalent to my three-year undergraduate degree course. We also had practical classes, especially in crop diversity and taxonomy, and at the end of the teaching year in May, we had to sit four written exam papers, each lasting three hours.

There were also guest lectures from the likes of experts like Erna Bennett (from FAO) and Jack Harlan from the University of Illinois.

We also had to choose a short research project, mostly carried out during the summer months through the end of August, and written up and presented for examination in September. While the bulk of the work was carried out following the exams, I think all of us had started on some aspects much earlier in the academic year. In my case, for example, I had chosen a topic on lentil evolution by November 1970, and began to assemble a collection of seeds of different varieties. These were planted (under cloches) in the field by the end of March 1971, so that they were flowering by June. I also made chromosome counts on each accession in my spare time from November onwards, on which my very first scientific paper was based.

At the end of the course, all our work, exams and dissertation, was assessed by an external examiner (a system that is commonly used among universities in the UK). The examiner was Professor Norman Simmonds, Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) just south of Edinburgh [2]. He made his scientific reputation working on bananas and potatoes, and published several books including an excellent text on crop evolution [3].

We graduated on 17 December 1971. I chose not to receive my degree in person although I attended the graduation ceremony to watch Folu receive hers. I did however borrow an academic gown (minus mortarboard) to have this photo with Trevor Williams.

Then and now
So how did we all end up in Birmingham, and what happened after graduation?

Felix received his first degree in genetics (Doutor em Agronomia) in 1955 from the Escola Superior de Agricultura Luiz de Queiroz, Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil. He was a contemporary of Almiro Blumenschein, who went on to collaborate with geneticist and Nobel Laureate Barbara McLintock on the maizes of South America, and head the Brazilian agricultural research institute EMBRAPA (which is the parent organization for the Brazilian national genebank CENARGEN).

Returning to Venezuela, Felix was involved (from 1956-1961) with a national project to breed the first Venezuelan hybrid corns and to organize commercial seed production while also looking after a collection of local varieties and races of corn.

In 1961 he started to work in the Facultad de Agronomía at the Universidad del Zulia, now one of the largest and most important universities in Venezuela. It seems he found out about the Birmingham course in 1969 through contact with Dr Jorge León, a Costarrican botanist working for IICA who had also been worked at FAO in genetic resources, and was a contemporary of Jack Hawkes in the 1960s genetic resources movement. León is second from right, standing, in the photo below. But Felix had also been inspired towards plant genetic resources by the book Plants, Man and Life by American geneticist Edgar Anderson.

Felix self-financed his studies at Birmingham, having taken a sabbatical leave from his university, and arriving in Birmingham by the middle of August. In December 1970, Felix returned briefly to Venezuela to bring his young wife Laura and his newly-born son Leonardo to Birmingham. They took up residence in a house owned by Jack Hawkes in Harborne, a suburb close to the university.

His dissertation, on the effect on growth of supra-optimal temperatures on a local Venezuelan sorghum variety, was supervised by plant physiologist Digby Idle. Having been awarded his MSc (the degree was conferred in December 1971), Felix returned to his university in Maracaibo, and continued his work in sorghum breeding. He was one of the pioneers to introduce grain sorghums in Venezuela, and continued working at the university up until about five years ago when, due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in his native country, Felix and Laura (who has an MSc degree from Vanderbilt University) decided to move to Florida and enjoy their retirement there. His three sons and six grandchildren had already left Venezuela.

Felix and I made contact with each other through Facebook, and it has been wonderful to catch up with him after almost five decades, and to know that since his Birmingham days he has enjoyed a fruitful career in academia and agricultural research, and remains as enthusiastic today, in his mid-eighties, as he was when I first knew him in September 1970.

Altaf was born in Faisalabad in December 1936, and when he came to Birmingham in 1970 he was already Assistant Professor in the Department of Botany at the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad. He had received his BSc (Agric.) degree from that university in 1957, followed by an MSc (Agric.) in 1962.

I cannot remember the topic of his dissertation nor who supervised it, perhaps Richard Lester. After graduation he moved to Bangor University to complete a PhD in 1974 on the genetic variation and distribution of Himalayan wheats and barleys, under the supervision of Professor John Witcombe (from whom I obtained the various photos of Altaf). In 1974 he joined a joint Bangor University-Lyallpur University to collect wheats and barley in northern Pakistan.

He continued his teaching at Faisalabad until 1996 when he retired as Professor of Botany. But he wasn’t finished. He joined the Cholistan Institute of Desert Studies at Islamia Universty and was director from 1998 to 2000. Sadly, in December 2000, just four days after his 64th birthday, Altaf passed away, leaving a wife, two daughters and four sons. Remembered for his devotion to plant genetic resources and desert ecology, you can read his obituary here.

Genetic resources conservation in Turkey received a major boost in the mid-1960s when an agreement was signed between the Government of Turkey and the United Nations Special Fund to establish a ‘Crop Research and Introduction Centre‘ at Menemen, Izmir. The Regional Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI, now the Aegean Agricultural Research Institute) became the location for this project, and Ayla was one of the first scientists to be involved.

Ayla came to Birmingham with a clear focus on what she wanted to achieve. She saw the MSc course as the first step to completing her PhD, and even arrived in Birmingham with samples of seeds for her research. During the course she completed a dissertation (with Jack Hawkes) on the origin of rye (Secale cereale), and she continued this project for a further two years or so for her PhD. I don’t recall whether she had the MSc conferred or not. In those days, it was not unusual for someone to convert an MSc course into the first year of a doctoral program; I’m pretty sure this is what Ayla did.

Completing her PhD in 1973 or 1974, Ayla continued to work with the Turkish genetic resources program until 1981 when she accepted a position at the International Maize and Wheat and Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City, as the first curator of the center’s wheat collection.

I believe Ayla stayed at CIMMYT until about 1990 or so, and then returned to Turkey. I know that she has retired with her daughter to a small coastal town southwest from Izmir, but I’ve been unable to make contact with her directly. The photo below was sent to me by Dr Tom Payne who is the current curator of CIMMYT’s wheat collection. He had dinner with Ayla a couple of years ago during one of his visits to Turkey.

Folu married shortly before traveling to Birmingham. Her husband had enrolled for a PhD at University College London. He had seen a small poster about the MSc course at Birmingham on a notice board at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria where Folu had completed her BSc in Botany. She applied successfully for financial support from the Mid-Western Nigeria Government to attend the MSc course, and subsequently her PhD studies.

Dr Dennis Wilkins

Before coming to Birmingham, Folu had not worked in genetic resources, but had a flair for genetics. Like me, she hoped that the course would be a launch pad for an interesting career. Her MSc dissertation—on floating rice—was supervised Dr Dennis Wilkins, an ecophysiologist. In the late 70s and early 80s, Dennis supervised the PhD of World Food Prize Laureate Monty Jones, who is now the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security in Sierra Leone.

After completing her MSc, Folu began a PhD under the supervision of Trevor Williams on the taxonomy of West African rice, which she completed in 1974. To successfully grow her rice varieties, half of one glasshouse at the department’s garden at Winterbourne was successfully converted to a rice paddy.

In this photo, taken during her PhD studies, Folu’s mother (who passed away in January 2018) visited her in Birmingham. Folu can’t remember the three persons between her and her mother, but on the far left is Dr Rena Martins Farias from Brazil, who was one of the first cohort of MSc students in 1969.

Folu also had the opportunity of joining a germplasm collecting mission to Turkey during 1972. In this photo, Folu (on the right) and Ayla (on the left) are collecting wheat landrace varieties.

Returning to Nigeria, Folu joined the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Benin, Benin City until 2010, when she retired. She taught a range of courses related to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, and conducted research on the taxonomy of African crop plants, characterization of indigenous crops from West Africa, and the ethnobotany of useful indigenous African plants. She counts among her most important contributions to genetic resources the training courses she helped deliver, and the research linkages she promoted among various bodies in Nigeria. She has published extensively.

After retirement from the University of Benin, she was seconded to the new Samuel Adegboyega University at Ogwa in Edo State, where she is Professor and Dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences. She has three children and five grandchildren.

As for myself, I was the only member of our class to be interviewed for a place on the MSc course, in February 1970. I’d heard about it from genetics lecturer at Southampton, Dr Joe Smartt, who stopped me in the corridor one day and gave me a pamphlet about the course, mentioning that he thought this would be right up my street. He wasn’t wrong!

However, my attendance was not confirmed until late August, because Jack Hawkes was unable to secure any financial support for me until then.

Trevor Williams supervised my dissertation on the origin of lentil (Lens culinaris), but as early as February 1971, Jack Hawkes had told me about an opportunity to work in Peru for a year after I’d completed the course, looking after a germplasm collection of native potato varieties at the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. In October 1971 I began a PhD (under Jack’s supervision) on the relationships between diploid and tetraploid potatoes (which I successfully defended in October 1975), and joined CIP in January 1973. Continuing with my thesis research, I also made several potato collecting missions in different regions of Peru.

From 1976-1981 I continued with CIP as its regional research leader in Central America, based in Costa Rica, working on disease resistance and potato production. I spent a decade back at The University of Birmingham from April 1981, mainly teaching on the genetic resources MSc course, carrying out research on potatoes and legumes, and supervising PhD students.

In 1991, I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños in the Philippines as the first head of the Genetic Resources Center, looking after the International Rice Genebank, and managing a major project to collect and conserve rice genetic resources worldwide. In 2001, I gave up research, left the genebank, and joined IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications, until 2010 when I retired.

But I’ve not rested on my laurels. Since retirement, I’ve organized two international rice science conferences for IRRI in Vietnam and Thailand, co-edited a second book on genetic resources and climate change, and led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program.

My wife Steph is a genetic resources graduate from Birmingham, in 1972, and she joined me at CIP in July 1973 after leaving her position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station where she helped to curate the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC).

We have two daughters, Hannah and Philippa (both PhD psychologists), and four grandchildren.

Sitting (L to R): Callum, Hannah, Zoe, Mike, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael (L) and Andi (R).

Looking back at the past five decades, I think I can speak for all of us that we had successful careers in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, repaying the investments supporting us to study at Birmingham all those years ago. What a journey it has been!

[1] Trevor left Birmingham at the end of the 1970s to become the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International) in Rome.

[2] The SPBS merged with the the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in Dundee in 1981 to become the Scottish Crops Research Institute. It is now the James Hutton Institute.

[3] Simmonds, NW (ed), 1976. Evolution of Crop Plants. Longman, London. A second edition, co-edited with Joe Smartt was published in 1995.

I came across this short account of Winterbourne Gardens (where the MSc course was ‘housed’ for many years, written by departmental secretary, Diane Wilson.

Genetic resources in safe hands

Among the most important—and most used—collections of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) are those maintained by eleven of the fifteen international agricultural research centers¹ funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Not only are the centers key players in delivering many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015, but their germplasm collections are the genetic base of food security worldwide.

Over decades these centers have collected and carefully conserved their germplasm collections, placing them under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and now, the importance of the PGRFA held by CGIAR genebanks is enshrined in international law, through agreements between CGIAR Centers and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA)². These agreements oblige CGIAR genebanks to make collections and data available under the terms of the ITPGRFA and to manage their collections following the highest standards of operation.

Evaluation and use of the cultivated and wild species in these large collections have led to the development of many new crop varieties, increases in agricultural productivity, and improvements in the livelihoods of millions upon millions of farmers and poor people worldwide. The genomic dissection of so many crops is further enhancing access to these valuable resources.

The CGIAR genebanks
In the Americas, CIP in Peru, CIAT in Colombia, and CIMMYT in Mexico hold important germplasm collections of: potatoes, sweet potatoes and other Andean roots and tubers; of beans, cassava, and tropical forages; and maize and wheat, respectively. And all these collections have serious representation of the closest wild species relatives of these important crops.

In Africa, there are genebanks at Africa Rice in Côte d’Ivoire, IITA in Nigeria, ILRI in Ethiopia, and World Agroforestry in Kenya, holdings collections of: rice; cowpea and yams; tropical forage species; and a range of forest fruit and tree species, respectively.

ICARDA had to abandon its headquarters in Aleppo in northern Syria, and has recently relocated to two sites in Morocco and Lebanon.

ICRISAT in India and IRRI in the Philippines have two of the largest genebank collections, of: sorghum, millets, and pigeon pea; and rice and its wild relatives.

There is just one CGIAR genebank in Europe, for bananas and plantains, maintained by Bioversity International (that has its headquarters in Rome) at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

Genebank security
Today, the future of these genebanks is brighter than for many years. Since 2012 they received ‘secure’ funding through the Genebanks CGIAR Research [Support] Program or Genebanks CRP, a collaboration with and funding from the Crop Trust. It was this Genebanks CRP that I and my colleagues Brian Ford-Lloyd and Marisé Borja evaluated during 2016/17. You may read our final evaluation report here. Other background documents and responses to the evaluation can be found on the Independent Evaluation Arrangement website. The CRP was superseded by the Genebank Platform at the beginning of 2017.

As part of the evaluation of the Genebanks CRP, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I attended the Annual Genebanks Meeting in Australia in November 2016, hosted by the Australian Grains Genebank at Horsham, Victoria.

While giving the Genebanks CRP a favorable evaluation—it has undoubtedly enhanced the security of the genebank collections in many ways—we did call attention to the limited public awareness about the CGIAR genebanks among the wider international genetic conservation community. And although the Platform has a website (as yet with some incomplete information), it seems to me that the program is less proactive with its public awareness than under the CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) more than a decade ago. Even the folks we interviewed at FAO during our evaluation of the Genebanks CRP indicated that this aspect was weaker under the CRP than the SGRP, to the detriment of the CGIAR.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating any return to the pre-CRP or Platform days or organisation. However, the SGRP and its Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) were the strong foundations on which subsequent efforts have been built.

When I re-joined the CGIAR in July 1991, taking charge of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, I became a member of the Inter-Center Working Group on Plant Genetic Resources (ICWG-PGR), but didn’t attend my first meeting until January 1993. I don’t think there was one in 1992, but if there was, I was not aware of it.

We met at the campus of the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA)³ in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was my first visit to any African country, and I do remember that on the day of arrival, after having had a BBQ lunch and a beer or three, I went for a nap to get over my jet-lag, and woke up 14 hours later!

I’m not sure if all genebanks were represented at that ILCA meeting. Certainly genebank managers from IRRI, CIMMYT, IITA, CIP, ILCA, IPGRI (the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, now Bioversity International) attended, but maybe there were more. I was elected Chair of the ICWG-PGR as it was then, for three years. These were important years. The Convention on Biological Diversity had been agreed during June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and was expected to come into force later in 1993. The CGIAR was just beginning to assess how that would impact on its access to, and exchange and use of genetic resources.

L-R: Brigitte Maass (CIAT), Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI), ??, Ali Golmirzaie (CIP), Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), ??, ??, Masa Iwanaga (IPGRI), Roger Rowe (CIMMYT), ?? (ICRAF), Melak Mengesha (ICRISAT), Mike Jackson (IRRI), Murthi Anishetty (FAO), Quat Ng (IITA), Jean Hanson (ILCA), Jan Engels (IPGRI).

We met annually, and tried to visit a different center and its genebank each year. In 1994, however, the focus was on strengthening the conservation efforts in the CGIAR, and providing better corrdination to these across the system of centers. The SGRP was born, and the remit of the ICWG-PGR (as the technical committee of the program) was broadened to include non-plant genetic resources, bringing into the program not only ICLARM (the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management, now WorldFish, but at that time based in Manila), the food policy institute, IFPRI in Washington DC, the forestry center, CIFOR in Indonesia, and ICRAF (the International Centre for Research on Agro-Forestry, now World Agroforestry) in Nairobi. The ICWG-PGR morphed into the ICWG-GR to reflect this broadened scope.

Here are a few photos taken during our annual meetings in IITA, at ICRAF (meetings were held at a lodge near Mt. Kenya), and at CIP where we had opportunity of visiting the field genebanks for potatoes and Andean roots and tubers at Huancayo, 3100 m, in central Peru.

The System-wide Genetic Resources Program
The formation of the SGRP was an outcome of a review of the CGIAR’s genebank system in 1994. It became the only program of the CGIAR in which all 16 centers at that time (ISNAR, the International Services for National Agricultural Research, based in The Hague, Netherlands closed its doors in March 2004) participated, bringing in trees and fish, agricultural systems where different types of germplasm should be deployed, and various policy aspects of germplasm conservation costs, intellectual property, and use.

In 1995 the health of the genebanks was assessed in another review, and recommendations made to upgrade infrastructure and techical guidelines and procedures. In our evaluation of the Genebanks CRP in 2016/17 some of these had only recently been addressed once the secure funding through the CRP had provided centers with sufficient external support.

SGRP and the ICWG-GR were major players at the FAO International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources held in Leipzig in 1997.

Under the auspices of the SGRP two important books were published in 1997 and 2004 respectively. The first, Biodiversity in Trust, written by 69 genebank managers, plant breeders and others working with germplasm in the CGIAR centers, and documenting the conservation and use status of 21 species or groups of species, was an important assessment of the status of the CGIAR genebank collections and their use, an important contribution not only in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity, but also as a contribution to FAO’s own monitoring of PGRFA that eventually led to the International Treaty in 2004.

The second, Saving Seeds, was a joint publication of IFPRI and the SGRP, and was the first comprehensive study to calculate the real costs of conserving seed collections of crop genetic resources. Costing the genebanks still bedevils the CGIAR, and it still has not been possible to arrive at a costing system that reflects both the heterogeneity of conservation approaches and how the different centers operate in their home countries, their organizational structures, and different costs basis. One model does not fit all.

In 1996/97 I’d been impressed by some research from the John Innes Institute in the UK about gene ‘homology’ or synteny among different cereal crops. I started developing some ideas about how this might be applied to the evaluation of genebank collections. In 1998, the ICWG-GR gave me the go-ahead—and a healthy budget— to organize an international workshop on Genebanks and Comparative Genetics that I’d been planning. With the help of Joel Cohen at ISNAR, we held a workshop there in ISNAR in August 1999, and to which we invited all the genebank managers, staff working at the centers on germplasm, and many of the leading lights from around the world in crop molecular biology and genomics, a total of more than 50 participants.

This was a pioneer event for the CGIAR, and certainly the CGIAR genebank community was way ahead of others in the centers in thinking through the possibilities for genomics, comparative genetics, and bioinformatics for crop improvement. Click here to read a summary of the workshop findings published in the SGRP Annual Report for 1999.

The workshop was also highlighted in Promethean Science, a 41 page position paper published in 2000 on the the importance of agricultural biotechnology, authored by former CGIAR Chair and World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin and Gabrielle Persley, a senior strategic science leader who has worked with some of the world’s leading agricultural research and development agencies. They address address the importance of characterizing biodiversity (and the workshop) in pages 21-23.

Although there was limited uptake of the findings from the workshop by individual centers (at IRRI for instance, breeders and molecular biologists certainly gave the impression that us genebankers has strayed into their turf, trodden on their toes so-to-speak, even though they had been invited to the workshop but not chosen to attend), the CGIAR had, within a year or so, taken on board some of the findings from the workshop, and developed a collective vision related to genomics and bioinformatics. Thus, the Generation Challenge Program (GCP) was launched, addressing many of the topics and findings that were covered by our workshop. So our SGRP/ICWG-GR effort was not in vain. In fact, one of the workshop participants, Bob Zeigler, became the first director of the GCP. Bob had been a head of one of IRRI’s research programs from 1992 until he left in about 1998 to become chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University. He returned to IRRI in 2004 as Director General!

Moving forward
Now the Genebanks CRP has been superseded by the Genebank Platform since the beginning of the year. The genebanks have certainly benefited from the secure funding that, after many years of dithering, the CGIAR finally allocated. The additional and external support from the Crop Trust has been the essential element to enable the genebanks to move forward.

In terms of data management, Genesys has gone way beyond the SGRP’s SINGER data management system, and now includes data on almost 3,602,000 accessions held in 434 institutes. Recently, DOIs have been added to more than 180,000 of these accessions.

One of the gems of the Genebanks CRP, which continues in the Genebank Platform, is delivery and implementation of a Quality Management System (QMS), which has two overarching objectives. QMS defines the necessary activities to ensure that genebanks meet all policy and technical standards and outlines ways to achieve continual quality improvement in the genebank’s administrative, technical and operational performance. As a result, it allows genebank users, regulatory bodies and donors to recognize and confirm the competence, effectiveness and efficiency of Platform genebanks.

The QMS applies to all genebank operations, staff capacity and succession, infrastructure and work environments, equipment, information technology and data management, user satisfaction, risk management and operational policies.

The Platform has again drawn in the policy elements of germplasm conservation and use, as it used to be under the SGRP (but ‘ignored’ under the Genebanks CRP), and equally importantly, the essential elements of germplasm health and exchange, to ensure the safe transfer of germplasm around the world.

Yes, I believe that as far as the CGIAR genebanks are concerned, genetic resources are in safe(r) hands. I cannot speak for genebanks elsewhere, although many are also maintained to a high standard. Unfortunately that’s not always the case, and I do sometimes wonder if there are simply too many genebanks or germplasm collections for their own good.

But that’s the stuff of another blog post once I’ve thought through all the implications of the various threads that are tangled in my mind right now.


¹ Research centers of the CGIAR (* genebank)

  • International Potato Center (CIP), Lima, Peru*
  • International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Cali, Colombia*
  • International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT), Texcoco, nr. Mexico DF, Mexico*
  • Bioversity International, Rome, Italy*
  • International Center for Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Lebanon and Morocco*
  • AfricaRice (WARDA), Bouaké / Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire*
  • International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Nigeria*
  • International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Nairobi, Kenya*
  • World Agroforestry Centre (WARDA), Nairobi, Kenya*
  • International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, India*
  • International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Baños, Philippines*
  • Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia
  • WorldFish, Penang, Malaysia
  • International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Colombo, Sri Lanka
  • International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, DC, USA

² The objectives of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture are the conservation and sustainable use of all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security.

³ ILCA was merged in January 1995 with the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases, based in Nairobi, Kenya, to form the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) with two campuses in Nairobi and Addis Ababa. The forages genebank is located at the Addis campus. A new genebank building was opened earlier this year.

There’s more to genetic resources than Svalbard

Way above the Arctic Circle (in fact at 78°N) there is a very large and cold hole in the ground. Mostly it is dark. Few people visit it on a daily basis.

A germplasm backup for the world
Nevertheless it’s a very important hole in the ground. It is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where more than 70 genebanks have placed — for long-term security, and under so-called blackbox storage [1] — a duplicate sample of seeds from their genetic resources (or germplasm) collections of plant species important for agriculture. Many of the most important and genetically diverse germplasm collections are backed up in Svalbard. But there are hundreds more collections, including some very important national collections, still not represented there.

A beacon of light – and hope – shining out over the Arctic landscape. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

Since it opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault has hardly ever been out of the media; here is a recent story from Spain’s El Pais, for example. If the public knows anything at all about genetic resources and conservation of biodiversity, they have probably heard about that in relation to Svalbard (and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex).

The Svalbard Vault is a key and vital component of a worldwide network of genebanks and genetic resources collections. It provides a long-term safety backup for germplasm that is, without doubt, the genetic foundation for food security; I have blogged about this before. At Svalbard, the seeds are ‘sleeping’ deep underground, waiting to be wakened when the time comes to resurrect a germplasm collection that is under threat. Waiting for the call that hopefully never comes.

Svalbard comes to the rescue
But that call did come in 2015 for the first and only time since the vault opened. Among the first depositors in Svalbard in 2008 were the international genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium, including the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). The ICARDA genebank conserves important cereal and legume collections from from the Fertile Crescent (the so-called ‘Cradle of Agriculture’) in the Middle East, and from the Mediterranean region. Until the civil war forced them out of Syria, ICARDA’s headquarters were based in Aleppo. Now it has reestablished its genebank operations in Morocco and Lebanon. In order to re-build its active germplasm collections, ICARDA retrieved over 15,000 samples from Svalbard in 2015, the only time that this has happened since the vault was opened. Now, thanks to successful regeneration of those seeds in Morocco and Lebanon, samples are now being returned to Svalbard to continue their long sleep underground.

ICARDA genebank staff ready to send precious seeds off to the Arctic. Dr Ahmed Amri, the ICARDA Head of Genetic Resources, is third from the right. Photo courtesy of ICARDA.

Another point that is often not fully understood, is that Svalbard is designated as a ‘secondary’ safety backup site. Genebanks sending material to Svalbard are expected to have in place a primary backup site and agreement. In the case of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which I am most familiar with for obvious reasons, duplicate germplasm samples of almost the entire collection of 127,000 accessions, are stored under blackbox conditions in the -18°C vaults of The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. Although ICARDA had safety backup arrangements in place for its collections, these involved several institutes. To reestablish its active collections in 2015 it was simpler and more cost effective to retrieve the samples from just one site: Svalbard.

We see frequent reports in the media about seeds being shipped to Svalbard.  Just last week, the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, Scotland, announced that it was sending seeds of potatoes from the Commonwealth Potato Collection to Svalbard; it was even reported on the BBC. A few days ago, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico sent a ton of seeds to the vault. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in Cali, Colombia sent its latest shipment of beans and tropical forages last October.


Dr Åsmund Asdal, Coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, from the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), receives a shipment of germplasm from CIAT in October 2016. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

The germplasm iceberg
Key and vital as Svalbard is, it is just the tip of the germplasm iceberg. The Svalbard vault is just like the part of an iceberg that you see. There’s a lot more going on in the genetic resources world that the public never, or hardly ever, sees.

There are, for example, other types of genetic resources that will never be stored at Svalbard. Why? Some plant species cannot be easily stored as seeds because they either reproduce vegetatively (and are even sterile or have low fertility at the very least; think of bananas, potatoes, yams or cassava); or have so-called recalcitrant seeds that are short-lived or cannot be stored at low temperature and moisture content like the seeds of many cereals and other food crop species (the very species stored at Svalbard). Many fruit tree species have recalcitrant seeds.

Apart from the ICARDA story, which was, for obvious reasons, headline news, we rarely see or hear in the media the incredible stories behind those seeds: where they were collected, who is working hard to keep them alive and studying the effects of storage conditions on seed longevity, and how plant breeders have crossed them with existing varieties to make them more resistant to diseases or better able to tolerate environmental change, such as higher temperatures, drought or flooding. Last year I visited a potato and sweet potato genebank in Peru, a bean and cassava genebank in Colombia, and one for wheat and maize in Mexico; then in Kenya and Ethiopia, I saw how fruit trees and forage species are being conserved.

Here is what happens at IRRI. You can’t do these things at Svalbard!

These are the day-to-day (and quite expensive) operations that genebanks manage to keep germplasm alive: as seeds, as in vitro cultures, or as field collections.

But what is the value of genebank collections? Check out a PowerPoint presentation I gave at a meeting last June. One can argue that all germplasm has an inherent value. We value it for its very existence (just like we would whales or tigers). Germplasm diversity is a thing of beauty.

Most landraces or wild species in a genebank have an option value, a potential to provide a benefit at some time in the future. They might be the source of a key trait to improve the productivity of a crop species. Very little germplasm achieves actual value, when it used in plant breeding and thereby bringing about a significant increase in productivity and economic income.

There are some spectacular examples, however, and if only a small proportion of the economic benefits of improved varieties was allocated for long-term conservation, the funding challenge for genebanks would be met. Human welfare and nutrition are also enhanced through access to better crop varieties.

impact-paper_small_page_01Last year, in preparation for a major fund-raising initiative for its Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, the Crop Trust prepared an excellent publication that describes the importance of genebanks and their collections, why they are needed, and how they have contributed to agricultural productivity. The economic benefits from using crop wild relatives are listed in Table 2 on page 8. Just click on the cover image (right) to open a copy of the paper. A list of wild rice species with useful agronomic traits is provided in Table 3 on page 9.

Linking genebanks and plant breeding
Let me give you, once again, a couple of rice examples that illustrate the work of genebanks and the close links with plant breeding, based on careful study of genebank accessions.

The indica variety IR72 was bred at IRRI, and released in 1990. It became the world’s highest yielding rice variety. One of its ancestors, IR36 was, at one time, grown on more than 11 million hectares. IR72 has 22 landrace varieties and a single wild rice, Oryza nivara, in its pedigree. It gets its short stature ultimately from IR8, the first of the so-called ‘miracle rices’ that was released in 1966. IRRI celebrated the 50th anniversary of that release recently. Resistance to a devastating disease, grassy stunt virus, was identified in just one accession of O. nivara from India. That resistance undoubtedly contributed to the widespread adoption of both IR36 and IR72. Just click on the pedigree diagram below to open a larger image [2].

IR Varieties_TOC.indd

The pedigree of rice variety IR72, that includes 22 landrace varieties and one wild species, Oryza nivara. Courtesy of IRRI.

A more recent example has been the search for genes to protect rice varieties against flooding [3]. Now that might seem counter-intuitive given that rice in the main grows in flooded fields. But if rice is completely submerged for any length of time, it will, like any other plant, succumb to submergence and die. Or if it does recover, the rice crop will be severely retarded and yield very poorly.

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene after a period of inundation

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene following transient complete submergence. Photo courtesy of IRRI.

Seasonal flooding is a serious issue for farmers in Bangladesh and eastern India. So the search was on for genes that would confer tolerance of transient complete submergence. And it took 18 years or more from the discovery of the SUB1 gene to the release of varieties that are now widely grown in farmers’ fields, and bringing productivity backed to farming communities that always faced seasonal uncertainty. These are just two examples of the many that have been studied and reported on in the scientific press.

There are many more examples from other genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium that maintain that special link between conservation and use. But also from other collections around the world where scientists are studying and using germplasm samples, often using the latest molecular genetics approaches [4] for the benefit of humanity. I’ve just chosen to highlight stories from rice, the crop I’m most familiar with.

[1] Blackbox storage is described thus on the Crop Trust website ( “The depositors who will deposit material will do so consistently with relevant national and international law. The Seed Vault will only agree to receive seeds that are shared under the Multilateral System or under Article 15 of the International Treaty or seeds that have originated in the country of the depositor.

Each country or institution will still own and control access to the seeds they have deposited. The Black Box System entails that the depositor is the only one that can withdraw the seeds and open the boxes.” 

[2] Zeigler, RS (2014). Food security, climate change and genetic resources. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 1-15.

[3] Ismail, AM & Mackill, DJ (2014). Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 251-269.

[4] McNally, KL (2014). Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 166-189.

Plant Genetic Resources: Our challenges, our food, our future


Jade Phillips

That was the title of a one day meeting on plant genetic resources organized by doctoral students, led by Jade Phillips, in the School of Biosciences at The University of Birmingham last Thursday, 2 June. And I was honoured to be invited to present a short talk at the meeting.

Now, as regular readers of my blog will know, I began my career in plant genetic resources conservation and use at Birmingham in September 1970, when I joined the one year MSc course on genetic conservation, under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes. The course had been launched in 1969, and 47 years later there is still a significant genetic resources presence in the School, even though the taught course is no longer offered (and hasn’t accepted students for a few years). Staff have come and gone – me included, but that was 25 years ago less one month, and the only staff member offering research places in genetic resources conservation is Dr Nigel Maxted. He was appointed to a lectureship at Birmingham (from Southampton, where I had been an undergraduate) when I upped sticks and moved to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1991.


Click on this image for the full program and a short bio of each speaker.

Click on each title below; there is a link to each presentation.

Nigel Maxted (University of Birmingham)
Introduction to PGR conservation and use

Ruth Eastwood (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – Wakehurst Place)
‘Adapting agriculture to climate change’ project

Holly Vincent (PhD student, University of Birmingham)
Global in situ conservation analysis of CWR

Joana Magos Brehm (University of Birmingham)
Southern African CWR conservation

Mike Jackson
Valuing genebank collections

Åsmund Asdal (NordGen)
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Neil Munro (Garden Organic)
Heritage seed library

Maria Scholten
Natura 2000 and in situ conservation of landraces in Scotland: Machair Life (15 minute film)

Aremi Contreras Toledo, Maria João Almeida, and Sami Lama (PhD students, University of Birmingham)
Short presentations on their research on maize in Mexico, landraces in Portugal, and CWR in North Africa

Julian Hosking (Natural England)
Potential for genetic diversity conservation – the ‘Fifth Dimension’ – within wider biodiversity protection

I guess there were about 25-30 participants in the meeting, mainly young scientists just starting their careers in plant genetic resources, but with a few external visitors (apart from speakers) from the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew-Wakehurst Place, the James Hutton Institute near Dundee, and IBERS at Aberystwyth.

The meeting grew out of an invitation to Åsmund Asdal from the Nordic Genetic Resources Center (NordGen) to present a School of Biosciences Thursday seminar. So the audience for his talk was much bigger.


Åsmund is Coordinator of Operation and Management for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and he gave a fascinating talk about the origins and development of this important global conservation facility, way above the Arctic Circle. Today the Vault is home to duplicate samples of germplasm from more than 60 depositor genebanks or institutes (including the international collections held in the CGIAR genebank collections, like that at IRRI.

Nigel Maxted’s research group has focused on the in situ conservation and use of crop wild relatives (CWR), although they are also looking at landrace varieties as well. Several of the papers described research linked to the CWR Project, funded by the Government of Norway through the Crop Trust and Kew. Postdocs and doctoral students are looking at the distributions of crop wild relatives, and using GIS and other sophisticated approaches that were beyond my comprehension, to determine not only where there are gaps in distributions, lack of germplasm in genebank collections, but also where possible priority conservation sites could be established. And all this under the threat of climate change. The various PowerPoint presentations demonstrate these approaches—which all rely on vast data sets—much better than I can describe them. So I encourage you to dip into the slide shows and see what this talented group of scientists has been up to.

Neil Munro from Garden Organic described his organization’s approach to rescue and multiply old varieties of vegetables that can be shared among enthusiasts.


Seeds cannot be sold because they are not on any official list of seed varieties. What is interesting is that one variety of scarlet runner bean has become so popular among gardeners that a commercial seed company (Thompson & Morgan if I remember what he said) has now taken  this variety and selling it commercially.


Julian Hosking from Natural England gave some interesting insights into how his organization was looking to combine the conservation of genetic diversity—his ‘Fifth Dimension’—with conservation of natural habitats in the UK, and especially the conservation of crop wild relatives of which there is a surprisingly high number in the British flora (such as brassicas, carrot, and onions, for example).

So, what about myself? When I was asked to contribute a paper I had to think hard and long about a suitable topic. I’ve always been passionate about the use of plant genetic diversity to increase food security. I decided therefore to talk about the value of genebank collections, how that value might be measured, and I provided examples of how germplasm had been used to increase the productivity of both potatoes and rice.


Nicolay Vavilov is a hero of mine

Although all the speakers developed their own talks quite independently, a number of common themes emerged several times. At one point in my talk I had focused on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet to illustrate the biological value (easy to use versus difficult to use) of germplasm in crop breeding.

Jackson FINAL - Valuing Genebank Collections

In the CWR Project research several speakers showed how the genepool concept could be used to set priorities for conservation.

Finally, there was one interesting aspect to the meeting—from my perspective at least. I had seen the titles of all the other papers as I was preparing my talk, and I knew several speakers would be talking about future prospects, especially under a changing climate. I decided to spend a few minutes looking back to the beginning of the genetic conservation movement in which Jack Hawkes was one of the pioneers. What I correctly guessed was that most of my audience had not even been born when I started out on my genetic conservation career, and probably knew very little about how the genetic conservation movement had started, who was involved, and what an important role The University of Birmingham had played. From the feedback I received, it seems that quite a few of the participants were rather fascinated by this aspect of my talk.

Indulging my [genetic resources] fantasies . . .

dnaLying in bed this morning, waiting for the news at 6 am on BBC’s Radio 4, I heard a brief ‘trailer’ for a new three-part series, Fantasy Festival, which begins on 13 August.

On the program’s website it states that: Festivals are fast becoming significant events on more and more people’s calendars. Whether it’s a huge rock fest or a small scale village event, it’s somebody’s job to imagine the festival before it happens, and to assemble all the pieces of the jigsaw that are needed to bring their vision to life.

But what if you could create your own festival – where you set the agenda, chose the guests, pick the acts, and dictate the weather, the food and the ambience? A festival where anyone – whether dead or alive – can be summoned to perform, and nothing is unimaginable.

What a treat!

Having been responsible for two international science conferences (on rice) in 2010, in Hanoi, and 2014, in Bangkok, I know all about the trials and tribulations of putting together a program of topics and speakers that most (never all) delegates will enjoy.

But, if there were no constraints at all, who would I invite to take part in a round-table discussion. From my perspective, it would be all about the nature and structure of genetic variation, and how it can be used for the benefit of society, especially under the threat of climate change.

So here’s a list I’ve just come up with. Who would be on yours?

I’m sure you must find this list rather surprising. And I can think of many more scientists* who could be a ‘panel member’. Some of my choices are obvious, others less so.

The fundamentals of evolution and genetics were the purview of Darwin and Mendel. What would they make of today’s advances in molecular biology, and how geneticists and plant breeders are using this sort of information to improve the crops that feed us. Susan McCouch is at the forefront of molecular genetics in her laboratory at Cornell University, dissecting the genome of rice and feeding that information into rice breeding. She’s also an excellent communicator.

Vavilov is the giant of genetic resources exploration and use. A genetic resources hero to many, no discussion of genetic conservation and use would be complete without his insights.

Edgar Anderson, a pioneer botanist in the USA, and former director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, demonstrated the importance of introgressive hybidization. Sir Otto Frankel is the father of the modern genetic resources movement, and an acclaimed wheat breeder in Australia. Jack Heslop-Harrison could turn his hand to almost anything botanical. But it’s for his broad perspectives on genetic variation in populations that I would include him, specifically for those on genecology.

Trevor Williams, a former director of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, oversaw the development of the international network of genebanks, and development of national capacity around the worked to successfully collect and conserve genetic resources. He had a broad view about conservation and use.

And sitting among these eminent scientists, from the pivotal year of 1953, is Nobel laureate Francis Crick. It would be interesting to know what he would have thought about these latest applications of molecular genetics in the service of humanity.

* G Ledyard Stebbins; Jack Hawkes; Erna Bennett; Clausen, Keck and Hiesey among others.

J Trevor Williams, genetic resources champion, passes away at 76

Yesterday evening I heard the sad news that an old friend and someone who was very influential at important stages of my career, had passed away peacefully at his home on 30 March, at the age of 76.

21 June 1938 – 30 March 2015

Professor J T Williams (JT to his friends, or simply Trevor) played an important role during the late 70s and throughout the 80s in establishing an international network of genebanks that today underpin world food security.

The Birmingham years
I first met Trevor in September 1970 when I joined the 1-year MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham. There’s no need to write about the course here as I have done so elsewhere on my blog. Short and stocky, a whirlwind of energy – and an inveterate chain smoker – Trevor joined the Department of Botany in 1968 or 1969, having been recruited by head of department Jack Hawkes to become the Course Tutor for that genetic resources course (which opened its doors in September 1969 and continued to train students over more than three decades).

20 Ed & Mike

L to R: Prof. Jack Hawkes, Dr Mike Jackson, and Dr Trevor Williams. Graduation Day, 12 December 1975, University of Birmingham

One of Trevor’s main teaching responsibilities was a course on taxonomic methods that inspired me so much that very quickly I decided that I wanted to write my dissertation under his supervision. Fortunately, Trevor was quite happy to take on this role, and by November 1970 we had agreed on a topic: on the origin and diversity of lentils (Lens culinaris). I’d indicated an interest in working on grain legumes, a hangover, I guess, from my Southampton undergraduate days where Joe Smartt, a leading grain legume specialist, had encouraged me to apply to the Birmingham course. But why how did we settle on lentils? Trevor and I worked our way through the various genera of the Fabaceae in Flora Europaea until we came to Lens and read this concise statement under the cultivated lentil, L. culinaris: Origin not known. Well, that piqued our curiosity and we set about acquiring seed samples of as many different varieties from a wide geographical range as possible.

In 1971-72 my wife Steph also worked with Trevor for her dissertation on growth and reproductive strategies in a range of grain legumes – lentil and chickpea among them. While Trevor supervised several MSc students during his years at Birmingham, I believe he had only one PhD student – another close friend, Emeritus Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd, and together they carried out a pioneering study of the genus Beta (beets!) When I moved to the University of Birmingham in 1981, I was assigned Trevor’s old office in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany).

Cambridge and Bangor
Trevor took his first degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University (Selwyn College, I believe), followed by a PhD at the University College of North Wales (now Bangor University) under the eminent ecologist and plant population biologist, Professor John Harper. Trevor then moved to Switzerland (I don’t remember where), and took a higher doctoral degree on the study of plant communities, or phytosociology. I’m also not sure if this was supervised by Josias Braun-Blanquet, the most influential phytosociologist of the time.

The move to Rome
In about 1977 Trevor was recruited to become the Executive Secretary of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources that was founded under the auspices of the FAO in 1974. He remained with IBPGR until 1990. Following his retirement from IBPGR, it became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), then Bioversity International in 2006.Under his tenure, IBPGR sponsored a large number of collecting missions around the world – this was the germplasm collecting decade – as well sponsoring training opportunities for genetic resources specialists, not least to the MSc course at Birmingham. Although IBPGR/IPGRI remained under the auspices of FAO until the early 1990s, it had become part of the network of international agricultural research centers under the CGIAR. And Trevor served as Chair of the Center Directors for at least one year at the end of the 1980s. In 1989 the Birmingham course celebrated its 20th anniversary; IBPGR sponsored a special reunion and refresher course at Birmingham and in Rome for a number of past students. We also recognized the unique contribution of IBPGR and Trevor joined us for those celebrations – which I have written about elsewhere in my blog.

Adi Damania (now at UC-Davis) sent me the photo below, of IBPGR staff on 2 December 1985, and taken at FAO Headquarters in Rome.


Sitting from L to R: Dorothy Quaye, Murthy Anishetty, unknown, J. Trevor Willams, Jean Hanson, unknown, Jane Toll. Standing L to R: Unknown, Adi Damania, unknown, unknown, Jeremy Watts, Merril, unknown, George Sayour, Pepe Esquinas-Alcazar, unknown, Chris Chapman, John Peeters, Jan Konopka, unknown temp, unknown, John Holden, Dick van Sloten.

In the 1990s Trevor spent some years helping to organize the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) as a legal entity with its headquarters in Beijing, China. And it was there in about 1995 or 1996 or so that our paths crossed once again. I was visiting the Institute of Botany in Beijing with one of my staff from IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center, Dr Bao-Rong Lu. One evening, after a particularly long day, we were relaxing in the hotel bar that overlooked the foyer and main entrance. As we were chatting, I noticed someone crossed the foyer and into the dining room who I thought I recognized. It was Trevor, and I joined him to enjoy more than a few beers until late into the night. I didn’t have any further contact with Trevor until one evening in January or February 2012. It was about 7.30 pm or so when the phone rang. It was Trevor ringing to congratulate me on my appointment as an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List. We must have chatted for over 30 minutes, and it was great to catch up. That was the last time I spoke with him, and even then he told me his health was not so good.

But let’s not be too sad at Trevor’s passing. Instead let’s celebrate the man and his enormous contribution to the conservation of plant genetic resources worldwide. His important role will be remembered and recognized for decades to come. I feel privileged that I knew and worked with him. His incisive intellect and commitment to the conservation of genetic resources and community made him one of my role models. Thank you, Trevor, for your friendship, words of wisdom, and above all, your encouragement – not only to me, but to your many students who have since contributed to the cause of genetic conservation.

Remembering Trevor – updates
Trevor’s funeral was held on Wednesday 22 April at 13:30, at St Chad’s Church, Handforth, Cheshire. His sister Wendy asked that in lieu of sending flowers, donations could be made to the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew. Jill Taylor, Development Officer at the Kew Foundation has set up an ‘account fund’ in Trevor’s name – that way she can collate the donations and be able to provide the family with a total amount raised. She will of course make sure that the whole amount is used for the work of the Millennium Seed Bank. All donations can be sent for Jill’s attention:

Jill Taylor Kew Foundation 47 Kew Green Richmond TW9 3AB
Tel: 020 8332 3248
Cheques should be made payable to ‘Millennium Seed Bank’
Donations can also be made online using this live link –
 If you donate online, please also email Jill at so that she can assign it to Trevor’s ‘fund’. That email inbox is monitored by a small group so will be attended even if Jill is away.

Brian Ford-Lloyd and I attended Trevor’s funeral, along with Roger Croston, also a Birmingham MSc course alumnus and a collector for IBPGR for about two years from 1980 or so.

Trevor’s sister, the Reverend Wendy Williams (celebrating 55 years since she was ordained) gave a beautiful eulogy, highlighting Trevor’s strong Christian faith – something neither Brian, Roger or I were aware of – and the charitable work he was involved with in Washington, DC after he left IBPGR, but also in Rome during his IBPGR years. Click on the image below to read the Service of Thanksgiving.


Here’s the link to the obituary that was published on 1 May in the UK’s Daily Telegraph broadsheet newspaper.

An obituary was published online on 1 July in the international journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Click here to read.

1989: the plant genetic resources course at Birmingham celebrates 20 years

In September 1969, the first ever one-year course on plant genetic resources conservation and use (leading to the graduate Master of Science degree) was launched at the University of Birmingham, in the Department of Botany. It was the brainchild of Professor Jack Hawkes, an internationally-renowned potato taxonomist, and one of the leading lights in the 1960s of the emerging genetic resources conservation movement.

Twenty years on, and Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote a short article for some newsletter or other – unfortunately I didn’t keep a record of which one. I think everyone was surprised that the course was still going strong and attracting many students. After all, Sir Otto Frankel had told Jack Hawkes in 1968 or thereabouts that the course would meet its demand within 20 years.

In September 1989, to mark the 20th anniversary of the course’s foundation and the first intake of students, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources¹ (IBPGR) sponsored a refresher course of about three weeks for a small number of students at Birmingham and at IBPGR headquarters in Rome, Italy. During the Birmingham component, the participants also visited the Welsh Plant Breeding Station² in Aberystwyth, the Vegetable Genebank³ at the National Vegetable Research Station, Wellesbourne, and the Royal Botanic Gardens – Kew at Wakehurst Place in Sussex.

L to R: Elizabeth Acheampong (Ghana), ?? (Indonesia), Trevor Williams, Gordana Radovic (Yugoslavia), Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), Singh (India), Carlos Arbizu (Peru), Carlos Carpio (Philippines), EN Seme (Kenya), Andrea Clausen (Argentina), Songkran Chitrakong (Thailand), Joseph Okello ? (Uganda)

To mark the occasion, a rather rare medlar tree (Mespilus germanica) was planted during a special ceremony attended by several university dignitaries as well as Professor Hawkes as the first course director, and Professor Jim Callow who became head of the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Department of Botany) and Mason Professor of Botany, and the second course director  in 1982 after Hawkes’ retirement. IBPGR Director Professor Trevor Williams (formerly the MSc course tutor at Birmingham before his move to Rome in the late 1970s) was another of the honored guests.

And that same evening, the Dean of Science at that time, Professor George Morrison hosted a dinner to celebrate the MSc Course attended by course staff and past students.

L to R: Ray Smallman, Trevor Williams, Jack Hawkes, Jim Callow, George Morrison

L to R: Jack Hawkes, Jim Callow, George Morrison, Mike Jackson, Ray Smallman, Trevor Williams

L to R: Mike Lawrence (staff), Singh (India), Joseph Okello (Uganda), Richard Lester (staff), Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland)

L to R: Brian Ford-Lloyd (course tutor), Elizabeth Acheampong (Ghana), John Newbury (staff), Gordana Radovic (Yugoslavia), Dave Marshall (staff), Carlos Carpio (Philippines), Songkran Chitrakon (Thailand)

L to R: Andrea Clausen (Argentina), Dave Astley (Vegetable Genebank, Wellesbourne), Carlos Arbizu (Peru), ??, EN Seme (Kenya), Mike Kearsey (staff)

In 1996 there was another get-together of PGR students who had passed through Birmingham over the previous 27 years, including someone from the very first intake in 1969, Mr Trevor Sykes from Canada. I was a member of the second intake in September 1970. But this get-together had not been arranged. We had come together at the FAO International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig, Germany. Most were members – leaders even – of national delegations to the conference. Thus was the impact – and continuing impact – of this important training course conducted over more than 30 years at the University of Birmingham.

Birmingham PGR students from Birmingham at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie, in the middle of the front row, standing next to Andrea Clausen (Argentina) on his left.

Birmingham PGR students at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie, in the middle of the front row, standing next to Andrea Clausen (Argentina) on his left.

Front row, L to R: Quat Ng (IITA [Malaysia]); Elizabeth Acheampong (Ghana); Rashid Anwar ? (Pakistan); Ayfer Tan (Turkey); Eliseu Bettencourt (Portugal); Trevor Sykes (Canada-UK); Andrea Clausen (Argentina); Athena Della (Cyprus); Rosa Kambuou (Papua New Guinea); Lyndsey Withers (IPGRI [UK – taught in vitro conservation]); Elizabeth Matos (Angola [UK]); Nestor Altoveros (Philippines).

Second row, L to R: Jane Toll (IPGRI [UK]); Franck Attere (IPGRI [Benin]); KPS Chandel (India); Jean Hanson (ILRI [UK]); Herta Kolberg (Namibia); George Ayad (IPGRI [Egypt]); Eltahir Mohamed (Sudan); Samuel Bennett-Lartey (Ghana); Ladislav Dotlacil (Czech Republic); Albert Cox (Gambia); Joseph Okello (Uganda); Mike Jackson (IRRI [UK]); Didier Balma (Burkina Faso); Unknown; Stephen Smith (Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. [UK]); Jean-Marie Fondoun (Cameroon); Lázló Holly (Hungary); Mahamadou Ibrahim ? (Niger); Wilson Marandu (Tanzania); Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI – Director General [UK]); EN Seme (Kenya); Luis Gusmão (Portugal).

Missing: Raul Castillo (Ecuador) and Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland) – who were working on a draft document when I had organized this photo opportunity.


¹ IBPGR became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) in October 1991. In 2006, IPGRI merged with the International Network for Bananas and Plantains (INIBAP) to form Bioversity International.
² Now part of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University.
³ Now the Genetic Resources Unit at the Warwick Crop Centre, University of Warwick.

Something for your Christmas stocking – Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change hits the shelves 11 December!

It’s taken just over two and half years, more than 2,400 emails, and many, many hours of editing. But Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change, edited by myself, Brian Ford-Lloyd and Martin Parry will be published by CABI on 11 December.

Brian was first approached by CABI commissioning editor Vicki Bonham in April 2011. He was reluctant to take on the book by himself, but suggested to Vicki that the project would be feasible if he could persuade Martin and me to be co-editors. I was on vacation in the USA at the time, visiting the Grand Canyon and other locations in Arizona and New Mexico when Brian first contacted me about the possible project. Getting involved in a new book was the last thing on my mind.

The next steps were to produce an outline of the book and find authors whose arms we could twist to contribute a chapter. In the end the book has 16 chapters, as I have described elsewhere. Only two authors let us down and never completed a chapter before we met our deadline with CABI. The contract with CABI was signed in February 2012, and we submitted the final edited chapters by the end of March this year. After that things moved quite fast. We completed the review of page proofs by mid-September, and the figures a couple of weeks later. Early on we agreed I should take on the role of managing editor as I was the only one who was fully ‘retired’ at that time.

Martin Parry

And on Monday this week, David Porter (Books Marketing Manager at CABI) and his colleague Sarah Hilliar came up to Birmingham to video Brian and me (and two other authors, Nigel Maxted and Jeremy Pritchard of the University of Birmingham) for a short promotional video about the book. Unfortunately, Martin Parry was unable to join us.

So now the hard work is over and Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change is about to be published. There are many interesting key messages, and the preface provides an excellent guide to the rest of the book.

Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change: available mid-December 2013

Our new 16 chapter book on plant genetic resources has 34 contributors who agree that enhanced use of plant genetic resources is critically important for mitigating against the effects of climate change. The book reveals strong positive messages for the future, but also some substantial negative ones if improvements to conservation and the use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) by plant breeders do not happen soon.

Positive messages:

  • While the latest IPCC report (and Betts and Hawkins, Chapter 3) ‘confirms’ that climate change is a reality – and it will affect agriculture – already we can compare regions and see what the scale of the agricultural challenge is, and extrapolate to what will be the situation in the future (Parry, Chapter 4; Berry et al., Chapter 5).
  • Even though climate change will exacerbate the problem of food insecurity – and some of the poorest countries will be affected worst (Zeigler, Chapter 1) – the good news is that breeders are confident they will be able to produce the next generation of ‘climate-adapted crops’. To adapt crops to new climate conditions it is now universally agreed that breeders need access to sources of genetic diversity – and tools to use this diversity more efficiently and effectively. The good news is that major sources of genetic diversity are already conserved in ex situ genebanks.
  • It is also good news that it’s now possible through novel molecular and bioinformatic approaches to more carefully identify valuable genes and track their progress in breeding. New technologies – molecular and bioinformatic – should massively improve exploitation of PGRFA provided those resources still survive. Seed genebanks will lead to DNA sequence genebanks and then on to in silico genebanks and the creation of the ‘digital plant’ (McNally, Chapter 10) enabling the modelling of the ‘ideal plant’ for whatever conditions prevail.
  • Good news also is that breeders are already addressing climate change constraints and using germplasm for submergence, drought, salinity, heat, and pests and diseases, and making progress which gives optimism for the future (Chapters 12 to 16). Drought, submergence, heat and salinity are all environmental stresses that are likely to increase as a result of climate change. For example, rice has 25 related wild species, and 22 of these have already contributed genes to new stress tolerant varieties (Zeigler, Chapter 1).
  • We now have good evidence indicating that some plants in their natural environments can adapt genetically to changing conditions very rapidly – easily within 20 or 30 years and within the timescale of climate change. So as well as conservation in genebanks, plant genetic resources need to be conserved in situ in natural reserves (Maxted et al., Chapter 7) or on farms (Bellon and van Etten, Chapter 8) so that new genes can evolve and provide a greater armory against climate change than afforded just by germplasm ‘frozen’ in genebanks (Ford-Lloyd et al., Chapter 2).

Issue for concern:

  • International mechanisms are in place, through the International Treaty, for breeders to share germplasm for the benefit of society. But there are still political issues constraining the use of plant genetic resources currently conserved (Ford-Lloyd et al., Chapter 2). ‘Ready access’ to genetic resources has been jeopardized by the International Treaty. But, the International Treaty is the only instrument we have for allowing for the exchange and then use of PGRFA so we have to make the best of it (Moore and Hawtin, Chapter 6).

  • Enhanced use of PGRFA can help reduce the increasing risk of hunger predicted by climate change, but does not detract from the need to reduce or stabilize greenhouse gas emissions which would have the greatest effect on reduction of increasing world hunger (Parry, Chapter 4).

  • It is clear that up to now, use of PGRFA by breeders has been neither systematic nor comprehensive, and the vast majority of crop wild relatives remain untapped (Maxted et al., Chapter 7).

  • Critically, we know virtually nothing about how many landraces are currently being grown and fulfilling their potential for adapting to changes in the environment, so there is a need for a step change (Ford-Lloyd et al., Chapter 2).

  • As much as 20% of all plants, not just crop wild relatives, are now estimated to be threatened with extinction. Even within Europe substantial numbers of crop wild relatives are threatened or critically endangered in International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) terms. However, it is the genetic diversity within species that is of greater value for crop improvement, and this diversity is almost certainly being lost (genetic erosion) at a much greater rate than the species themselves, and yet their conservation is far from sufficient (Maxted etal., Chapter 7).

  • Relatively few crop wild relatives (9%) are conserved in genebanks, and even fewer conserved in natural reserves. So, currently there is no guarantee that the genes we need for combating climate change will be available in newly adapted forms when we need them.

Would you like to purchase a copy? You can order online from CABI. When ordering from CABI online purchasers can use this code (CCPGRCC20) for a 20% discount off the retail price. The discount code is valid until 31 December 2013. The standard prices are £85.00, U5$160.00, or €11 0.00. The discounted prices are £68, $128, or €88 .


Senior Lecturer, School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK

Mauricio R. BELLON
Principal Scientist, Bioversity International, Via dei Tre Denari 472/a, Maccarese, Rome, Italy

Senior Research Fellow, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, Dyson Perrins Building, South Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3QY, UK

Richard A. BETTS
Professor and Head of the Climate Impacts, Met Office Hadley Centre, FitzRoy Road, Exeter, Devon EX1 3PB, UK

Research Associate, Institute of Agriculture, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia

Joana Magos BREHM
Collaborator, Centre for Environmental Biology, University of Lisbon, Portugal and Research Assistant, School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK

Postdoctoral Fellow, Wageningen UR Plant Breeding, PO Box 16, 6700 AJ Wageningen, The Netherlands

Former Barley Breeder, International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Aleppo, Syria (now retired)

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Agronomy, 2004 Throckmorton Plant Science Center, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506, USA

Johannes M.M. ENGELS
Honorary Research Fellow, Bioversity International, Via dei Tre Denari 472/a, Maccarese, Rome, Italy

Professor and Director, International Centre for Plant Breeding Education and Research (ICPBER) and Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture (CLIMA), The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009, Perth, Australia

Jacob van ETTEN
Theme Leader – Climate Change Adaptation, Bioversity International, Regional Office of the Americas, CIAT, Recta Cali – Palmira Km. 17, Palmira, Colombia

Emeritus Professor, School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK

NERC Advanced Research Fellow, National Centre for Atmospheric Science, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Earley Gate, PO Box 243, Reading, RG6 6BB, UK

Geoffrey HAWTIN
Former Director General, International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), Maccarese, Rome, Italy (now retired)

Abdelbagi M. ISMAIL
Principal Scientist – Plant Physiology, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), DAPO 7777, Manila 1301, Philippines

Former Head of the Genetic Resources Center and Director for Program Planning and Communications, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), DAPO Box 7777, Manila 1301, Philippines (now retired)

Shelagh KELL
Research Fellow, School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK

Adjunct Professor, Department of Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA and former Principal Scientist – Rice Breeding, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), DAPO 7777, Manila 1301, Philippines

Al Imran MALIK
Research Associate, Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture (CLIMA) and Institute of Agriculture, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia

Senior Lecturer in Genetic Conservation, School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK

Kenneth L. McNALLY
Senior Scientist II – Molecular Genetics and Computational Biology, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), DAPO Box 7777, Manila 1301, Philippines

Principal Scientist and Program Leader (Genetic Resources Enhancement and Management), International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa, United Nations Avenue, World Agroforestry Centre, Gigiri PO Box 39063-00623, Nairobi, Kenya 

Samarendu MOHANTY
Head, Social Sciences Division, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), DAPO Box 7777 Manila 1301, Philippines

Gerald MOORE
Former Legal Counsel, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, Italy (now retired)

Former Reader, Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Penglais, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 3DA, UK(now retired)

Martin PARRY
Visiting Professor, Grantham Institute and Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, London, SW7 2AZ, UK

Associate Professor and Director of K-State Center for Sorghum Improvement, Department of Agronomy, 2004 Throckmorton Plant Science Center, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506, USA

Senior Lecturer and Head of Education,School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK

Doctoral Researcher, Institute for Climatic and Atmospheric Science (ICAS), School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), Cali, Colombia, and International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Cali, Colombia

Research Scientist, Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Penglais, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 3DA, UK

Principal Scientist, Assistant Research Program Director – Grain Legumes, and Head – Gene Bank, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Patancheru 502 324, Andhra Pradesh, India

Senior Scientist – Resistance Breeding, Wageningen UR Plant Breeding, PO Box 16, 6700 AJ Wageningen, The Netherlands

Director General, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), DAPO Box 7777, Manila 1301, Philippines


1. Food security, climate change and genetic resources
Robert S. Zeigler

2. Genetic resources and conservation challenges under the threat of climate change
Brian Ford-Lloyd, Johannes M.M. Engels and Michael Jackson

3. Climate projections
Richard A. Betts and Ed Hawkins

4. Effects of climate change on potential food production and risk of hunger
Martin Parry

5. Regional impacts of climate change on agriculture and the role of adaptation
Pam Berry, Julian Ramirez-Villegas, Helen Bramley, Samarandu Mohanty and Mary A. Mgonja

6. International mechanisms for conservation and use of genetic resources
Gerald Moore and Geoffrey Hawtin

7. Crop wild relatives and climate change
Nigel Maxted, Shelagh Kell and Joana Magos Brehm

8. Climate change and on-farm conservation of crop landraces in centres of diversity
Mauricio R. Bellon and Jacob van Etten

9. Germplasm databases and informatics
Helen Ougham and Ian D. Thomas

10. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change
Kenneth L. McNally

11. Harnessing meiotic recombination for improved crop varieties
Susan J. Armstrong

12. High temperature stress
Maduraimuthu Djanaguiraman and P.V..Vara Prasad

13. Drought
Salvatore Ceccarelli

14. Salinity
William Erskine, Hari D. Upadhyaya and Al Imran Malik

15. Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice
Abdelbagi M. Ismail and David J. Mackill

16. Effects of climate change on plant-insect interactions and prospects for resistance breeding using genetic resources
Jeremy Pritchard, Colette Broekgaarden and Ben Vosman 


MICHAEL JACKSON retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2010. For 10 years he was Head of the Genetic Resources Center, managing the International Rice Genebank, one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks. Then, for nine years, he was Director for Program Planning and Communications. He was also Adjunct Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños. During the 1980s he was Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham, focusing on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. From 1973-81 he worked at the International Potato Center, in Lima, Perú and in Costa Rica. He now works part-time as an independent agricultural research and planning consultant. He was appointed OBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours 2012, for services to international food science.

BRIAN FORD-LLOYD is Emeritus Professor of Conservation Genetics at the University of Birmingham, former Director of the University Graduate School, and former Deputy Head of the School of Biosciences. During his tenure as Director of the University Graduate School he aimed to ensure that doctoral researchers throughout the University were provided with the opportunity, training and facilities to undertake internationally valued research that would lead into excellent careers in the UK and overseas. He drew from his experience of having successfully supervised over 40 doctoral researchers from the UK and many other parts of the world in his chosen research area which included the study of the natural genetic variation in plant populations, and agricultural plant genetic resources and their conservation.

MARTIN PARRY is Visiting Professor at The Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, and also Visiting Research Fellow at The Grantham Institute at the same university. Until September 2008 he was Co-Chair of Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability), of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) based at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, UK Meteorological Office. Previously he was Director of the Jackson Environment Institute (JEI), and Professor of Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia (1999-2002); Director of the JEI and Professor of Environmental Management at University College London (1994-99); foundation Director of the Environmental Change Institute and Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford (1991-94); and Professor of Geography at the University of Birmingham (1989-91). He was appointed OBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours 1998, for services to the environment and climate change.

Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change – publication by the end of the year*

A perspective from 25 years ago
In April 1989, Brian Ford-Lloyd, Martin Parry and I organized a workshop on plant genetic resources and climate change at the University of Birmingham. A year later, Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources was published (by Belhaven Press), with eleven chapters summarizing perspectives on climatic change and how it might affect plant populations, and its expected impact on agriculture around the world.

We asked whether genetic resources could cope with climate change, and would plant breeders be able to access and utilize genetic resources as building blocks of new and better-adapted crops? We listed ten consensus conclusions from the workshop:

  1. The importance of developing collection, conservation and utilization strategies for genetic resources in the light of climatic uncertainty should be recognised.
  2. There should be marked improvement in the accuracy of climate change predictions.
  3. There must be concern about sea level rises and their impact on coastal ecosystems and agriculture.
  4. Ecosystems should be preserved thereby allowing plant species – especially crop species and their wild relatives – the flexibility to respond to climate change.
  5. Research should be prioritized on tropical dry areas as these might be expected to be more severely affected by climate change.
  6. There should be a continuing need to characterize and evaluate germplasm that will provide adaptation to changed climates.
  7. There should be an increase in screening germplasm for drought, raised temperatures, and salinity.
  8. Research on the physiology underlying C3 and C4 photosynthesis should merit further investigation with the aim of increasing the adaptation of C3 crops.
  9. Better simulation models should drive a better understanding of plant responses to climate change.
  10. Plant breeders should become more aware of the environmental impacts of climate change, so that breeding programs could be modified to accommodate these predicted changes.

Climate change perspectives today
There is much less scepticism today about greenhouse gas-induced climate change and what its consequences might be, even though the full impacts of climate change cannot yet be predicted with certainty. On the other hand, the nature of weather variability – particularly in the northern hemisphere in recent years – has left some again questioning whether our climate really is warming. But the evidence is there for all to see, even as the sceptics refuse to accept the empirical data of increases in atmospheric CO2, for example, or the unprecedented summer melting of sea ice in the Arctic and the retreat of glaciers in the Alps.

Over the past decade the world has experienced a number of severe climate events – wake-up calls to what might be the normal pattern in the future under a changed climate – such as extreme drought in one region, or unprecedented flooding in another. Even the ‘normal’ weather patterns of Western Europe appear to have become disrupted in recent years leading to increased stresses on agriculture.

Some of the same questions we asked in 1989 are still relevant. However, there are some very important differences today from the situation then. Our understanding of what is happening to the climate has been refined significantly over the past two decades, as the efforts of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have brought climate scientists worldwide together to provide better predictions of how climate will change. Furthermore, governments are now taking the threat of climate change seriously, and international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, which came into force in 2005 and, even with their limitations, have provided the basis for society and governments to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

A new book from CABI
It is in this context, therefore, that our new book Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change was commissioned to bring together, in a single volume, some of the latest perspectives about how genetic resources can contribute to achieving food security under the challenge of a changing climate. We also wanted to highlight some key issues for plant genetic resources management, to demonstrate how perspectives have changed over two decades, and discuss some of the actual responses and developments.

Food security and genetic resources
So what has happened during the past two decades or so? In 1990, world population was under 6 billion, but today there are more than 1 billion additional mouths to feed. The World Food Program estimates that there are 870 million people in the world who do not get enough food to lead a normal and active life. Food insecurity remains a major concern. In an opening chapter, Robert Zeigler (IRRI) provides an overview on food security today, how problems of food production will be exacerbated by climate change, and how – in the case of one crop, rice – access to and use of genetic resources have already begun to address many of the challenges that climate change will bring.

Expanding on the plant genetic resources theme, Brian Ford-Lloyd (University of Birmingham) and his co-authors provide (in Chapter 2) a broad overview of important issues concerning their conservation and use, including conservation approaches, strategies, and responses that become more relevant under the threat of climate change.

Climate projections
In three chapters, Richard Betts (UK Met Office) and Ed Hawkins (University of Reading), Martin Parry (Imperial College – London), and Pam Berry (Oxford University) and her co-authors describe scenarios for future projected climates (Chapter 3), the effects of climate change on food production and the risk of hunger (Chapter 4), and regional impacts of climate change on agriculture (Chapter 5), respectively. Over the past two decades, development of the global circulation models now permits climate change prediction with greater certainty. And combining these with physiological modelling and geographical information systems (GIS) we now have a better opportunity to assess what the impacts of climate change might be on agriculture, and where.

Sharing genetic resources
In the 1990s, we became more aware of the importance of biodiversity in general, and several international legal instruments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture were agreed among nations to govern access to and use of genetic resources for the benefit of society. A detailed discussion of these developments is provided by Gerald Moore (formerly FAO) and Geoffrey Hawtin (formerly IPGRI) in Chapter 6.

Crop wild relatives, in situ and on-farm conservation
In Chapters 7 and 8, we explore the
in situ conservation of crop genetic resources and their wild relatives. Nigel Maxted and his co-authors (University of Birmingham) provide an analysis of the importance of crop wild relatives in plant breeding and the need for their comprehensive conservation. Mauricio Bellon and Jacob van Etten (Bioversity International) discuss the challenges for on-farm conservation in centres of crop diversity under climate change.

Informatics and the impact of molecular biology
Discussing the data management aspects of germplasm collections, Helen Ougham and Ian Thomas (Aberystwyth University) describe in Chapter 9 several developments in genetic resources databases, and regional projects aimed at facilitating conservation and use. Two decades ago we had little idea of what would be the impact of molecular biology and its associated data today on the identification of useful crop diversity and its use in plant breeding. In Chapter 10, Kenneth McNally (IRRI) provides a comprehensive review of the present and future of how genomics and other molecular technologies – and associated informatics – are revolutionizing how we study and understand diversity in plant species. He also provides many examples of how responses to environmental stresses that can be expected as a result of climate change can be detected at the molecular level, opening up unforeseen opportunities for precise germplasm evaluation, identification, and use. Susan Armstrong (University of Birmingham, Chapter 11) describes how a deeper understanding of sexual reproduction in plants, specifically the processes of meiosis, should lead to better use of germplasm in crop breeding as a response to climate change.

Coping with climate change
In a final series of five chapters, responses to a range of abiotic and biotic stresses are documented: heat (by Maduraimuthu Djanaguiraman and Vara Prasad, Kansas State University, Chapter 12); drought (Salvatore Ceccarelli, formerly ICARDA, Chapter 13); salinity (including new domestications) by William Erskine, University of Western Australia, and his co-authors in Chapter 14; submergence tolerance in rice as a response to flooding (Abdelbagi Ismail, IRRI and David Mackill, University of California – Davis, Chapter 15); and finally plant-insect interactions and prospects for resistance breeding using genetic resources (by Jeremy Pritchard, University of Birmingham, and co-authors, Chapter 16).

Why this book is timely and important
The climate change that has been predicted is an enormous challenge for society worldwide. Nevertheless, progress in the development of scenarios of climate change – especially the development of more reliable projections of changes in precipitation – now provide a much more sound basis for using genetic resources in plant breeding for future climates. While important uncertainty remains about changes to variability of climate, especially to the frequency of extreme weather events, enough is now known about the range of possible changes (for example by using current analogues of future climate) to provide a basis for choosing genetic resources in breeding better-adapted crops. Even the challenge of turbo-charging the photosynthesis of a C
3 crop like rice has already been taken up by a consortium of scientists worldwide under the leadership of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Unlike the situation in 1989, estimates of average sea level rise, and consequent risks to low lying land areas, are now characterised by less uncertainty and indicate the location and scale of the challenges posed by inundation, by soil waterlogging and by land salinization. Responses to all of these challenges and the progress achieved are spelt out in detail in several chapters in this volume.

We remain confident that research will continue to demonstrate just what is needed to mitigate the worst effects of climate change; that germplasm access and use frameworks – despite their flaws – facilitate breeders to choose and use genetic resources; and that ultimately, genetic resources will be used successfully in crop breeding for climate change thereby enhancing food security.

Would you like to buy a copy?
The authors will receive their page proofs any day now, and we should have the final edits made by the middle of September. CABI expects to publish Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change in December 2013. Already this book can be found online through a Google search even though it’s not yet published. But do go to the CABI Bookshop – the book has been priced at £85 (or USD160 and €110). If you order online I’m told there is a discount on the list price.

* This post is based on the Preface from the forthcoming CABI book.

Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change – in the production phase at last

At the end of March I submitted to CABI all 16 manuscripts and associated figures for our book on Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change.

These are now being checked and moving through the various production phases. We hope that the book will be published in the last quarter of 2013. I gather that the target price will be around £85 – but that has yet to be confirmed. The book will be around 300+ pages.

Plant Genetic Resources - cover design

Rationale and audience:
The collection and conservation of plant genetic resources have made significant progress over the past half century, and many large and important collections of crop germplasm have been established in many countries. A major threat to continuing crop productivity is climate change, which is expected to bring about disruptions to patterns of agriculture, to the crops and varieties that can be grown, and some of the constraints to productivity – such as diseases and pests, and some abiotic stresses – will be exacerbated. This book will address the current state of climate change predictions and its consequences, how climate change will affect conservation and use of crop germplasm, both ex situ and in situ, as well as highlighting specific examples of germplasm research related to ‘climate change threats’. All of this needs to take place under a regime of access to and use of germplasm through international legal instruments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. This book will be essential reading for plant breeders and physiologists, as well as those involved with germplasm conservation per se. In particular it will be a companion volume to the recently published CABI volume Climate Change and Crop Production (2010) by MP Reynolds (ed.), but of interest to the same readership as Crop Stress Management and Global Climate Change (2011) by JL Araus and GA Slafer (eds.) and Climate Change Biology (2011) by JA Newman et al.

Chapters, authors and their affiliations:

Michael Jackson, Brian Ford-Lloyd and Martin Parry
The Editors

1. Food security, climate change and genetic resources
Robert S. Zeigler

2. Genetic resources and conservation challenges under the threat of climate change
Brian Ford-Lloyd, Johannes M.M. Engels and Michael Jackson
University of Birmingham, Bioversity International, and formerly IRRI (now retired)

3. Climate projections
Richard A. Betts and Ed Hawkins
UK MetOffice and University of Reading

4. Effects of climate change on potential food production and risk of hunger
Martin Parry
Imperial College

5. Regional impacts of climate change on agriculture and the role of adaptation
Pam Berry, Julian Ramirez-Villegas, Helen Bramley, Samarandu Mohanty and Mary A. Mgonja
University of Oxford, University of Leeds and CIAT, University of Western Australia, IRRI, and ICRISAT

6. International mechanisms for conservation and use of genetic resources
Gerald Moore and Geoffrey Hawtin
Formerly FAO and formerly IPGRI (now retired)

7. Crop wild relatives and climate change
Nigel Maxted, Shelagh Kell and Joana Magos Brehm
University of Birmingham

8. Climate change and on-farm conservation of crop landraces in centres of diversity
Mauricio R. Bellon and Jacob van Etten
Bioversity International

9. Germplasm databases and informatics
Helen Ougham and Ian D. Thomas
University of Aberystwyth

10. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change
Kenneth L. McNally

11. Harnessing meiotic recombination for improved crop varieties
Susan J. Armstrong
University of Birmingham

12. High temperature stress
Maduraimuthu Djanaguiraman and P.V. Vara Prasad
Kansas State University

13. Drought
Salvatore Ceccarelli
Formerly ICARDA (now retired)

14. Salinity
William Erskine, Hari D. Upadhyaya and Al Imran Malik
University of Western Australia, ICRISAT, and UWA

15. Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice
Abdelbagi M. Ismail and David J. Mackill
IRRI and University of California – Davis

16. Effects of climate change on plant-insect interactions and prospects for resistance breeding using genetic resources
Jeremy Pritchard, Colette Broekgaarden and Ben Vosman
University of Birmingham and Wageningen UR Plant Breeding

The editors:
Michael Jackson retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2010. For 10 years he was Head of the Genetic Resources Center, managing the International Rice Genebank, one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks. For nine years he was Director for Program Planning and Communications. He was Adjunct Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños. During the 1980s he was Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham, focusing on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. From 1973-81 he worked at the International Potato Center, in Lima, Perú and in Costa Rica. He now works part-time as an independent agricultural research and planning consultant. He was appointed OBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours 2012, for services to international food science.

Brian Ford-Lloyd is Emeritus Professor of Conservation Genetics at the University of Birmingham, former Director of the University Graduate School, and former Deputy Head of the School of Biosciences. As Director of the University Graduate School he aimed to ensure that doctoral researchers throughout the University were provided with the opportunity, training and facilities to undertake internationally valued research that would lead into excellent careers in the UK and overseas. He drew from his experience of having successfully supervised over 40 doctoral researchers from the UK and many other parts of the world in his chosen research area which included the study of the natural genetic variation in plant populations, and agricultural plant genetic resources and their conservation.

Martin Parry is Visiting Professor at The Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, and also Visiting Research Fellow at The Grantham Institute at the same university. Until September 2008 he was Co-Chair of Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability), of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) based at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, UK Meteorological Office. Previously he was Director of the Jackson Environment Institute (JEI), and Professor of Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia (1999-2002); Director of the JEI and Professor of Environmental Management at University College London (1994-99), foundation Director of the Environmental Change Institute and Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford (1991-94), and Professor of Geography at the University of Birmingham (1989-91). He was appointed OBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours 1998, for services to the environment and climate change.

Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change

In 1989, my former colleagues at the University of Birmingham, Brian Ford-Lloyd and Martin Parry, and I organized a two-day symposium on genetic resources and climate change. The papers presented were published in Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources by Belhaven Press (ISBN 1 85293 102 7), edited by me and the other two.

In 1989 the whole idea of climate change was greeted with a considerable dose of scepticism – indeed, the book was ahead of its time. The various chapters covered predictions of climate change, impacts on agriculture, ecological and physiological effects, and how climate change would impact on genetic resources and conservation strategies.

In a particularly prescient chapter, the late Professor Harold Woolhouse discussed how photosynthetic biochemistry is relevant to adaptation to climate change. Two decades later the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in the Philippines is leading a worldwide effort to turbocharge the photosynthesis of rice, by converting the plant from so-called C3 to C4 photosynthesis.

Today, our understanding and acceptance of climate change rests on much more solid foundations, and the scientific community is looking at ways to adapt to this particular challenge. And access to and use of plant genetic resources will be an important approach in this endeavour.

A new book on plant genetic resources and climate change will be published in 2013 by CABI. Brian, Martin and I are joining forces once again to bring this exciting volume to publication. We are planning 19 chapters in three sections:

1. Food security (Bob Zeigler – IRRI)
2. Germplasm conservation (lead author: Brian Ford-Lloyd – University of Birmingham)
3. Predicting climate changes (Richard Betts – UK Met Office)
4. Effect on productivity (Martin Parry – Imperial College, London)
5. Future growing conditions (lead author: Pam Berry – University of Oxford)
6. Susceptibility of species (lead author: Castaneda Alvarez – Bioversity International)
7. International mechanisms for conservation and use of genetic resources (lead author: Gerald Moore – formerly FAO)

Technologies for conservation and enhancing use
8. In situ conservation of wild relatives (Nigel Maxted – University of Birmingham)
9. On farm conservation (lead author: Mauricio Bellon – Bioversity International)
10. Molecular technologies (Ken McNally – IRRI)
11. Databases and informatics (lead author: Helen Ougham – University of Aberystwyth)
12. Releasing novel variation (Sue Armstrong – University of Birmingham)
13. Provenance breeding (Wayne Powell – University of Aberystyth)

14. Temperature (lead author: PV Vara Prasad – Kansas State University)
15. Drought (Salvatore Ceccarelli – formerly ICARDA)
16. Salinity (lead author: Willie Erskine – University of Western Australia)
17. Submergence (lead author: Abdelbagi Ismail – IRRI)
18. Pests and diseases (lead author: Jeremy Pritchard – University of Birmingham)

A final chapter (19), by the editors, will provide a synthesis of the many issues raised in the individual chapters.

The Editors

Michael Jackson is the Managing Editor for this book. He retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2010. For 10 years he was Head of the Genetic Resources Center, managing the International Rice Genebank, one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks. For nine years he was Director for Program Planning and Communications. He was Adjunct Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños. During the 1980s he was Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham, focusing on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. From 1973-81 he worked at the International Potato Center, in Lima, Perú and in Costa Rica. He now works part-time as an independent agricultural research and planning consultant. He was appointed OBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours 2012, for services to international food science.

Brian Ford-Lloyd is Professor of Conservation Genetics at the University of Birmingham, Director of the University Graduate School, and Deputy Head of the School of Biosciences. As Director of the University Graduate School he aims to ensure that doctoral researchers throughout the University are provided with the opportunity, training and facilities to undertake internationally valued research that will lead into excellent careers in the UK and overseas. He draws from his experience of having successfully supervised over 40 doctoral researchers from the UK and many other parts of the world in his chosen research area which includes the study of the natural genetic variation in plant populations, and agricultural plant genetic resources and their conservation.

Martin Parry is Visiting Professor at The Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, and also Visiting Research Fellow at The Grantham Institute at the same university. Until September 2008 he was Co-Chair of Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability), of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) based at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, UK Meteorological Office. Previously he was Director of the Jackson Environment Institute (JEI), and Professor of Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia (1999-2002); Director of the JEI and Professor of Environmental Management at University College London (1994-99), foundation Director of the Environmental Change Institute and Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford (1991-94), and Professor of Geography at the University of Birmingham (1989-91). He was appointed OBE in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours 1998, for services to the environment and climate change.

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.

Jack Hawkes – a plant genetic resources pioneer

I was privileged to have known Jack Hawkes for almost 40 years. I first met him in February 1970 when he interviewed me for a place on the new MSc course at the University of Birmingham on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. I then went on to complete a PhD on potatoes under his co-supervision (with Dr Roger Rowe at the International Potato Center, in Lima, Peru). I was appointed to a lectureship in plant biology in April 1981 essentially to take over Jack’s teaching commitments on crop evolution and other genetic resources topics since he was due to retire from the university in September 1982. The post below is based on an article I wrote for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published last year.

John Gregory ‘Jack’  Hawkes – botanist, educator, and visionary – was born in Bristol in 1915. After completing his secondary education at Cheltenham Grammar School in 1934, he won a place at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, graduating with a BA (Natural Sciences, first class honours) in 1937. His MA was awarded in 1938, and he completed his PhD in 1941 under the supervision of the noted potato breeder and historian, Dr Redcliffe N Salaman FRS. The university awarded Jack the ScD degree in 1957.

On 20 December 1941 Jack married Barbara Ellen Leather. They had two daughters, born in 1944 and 1946, and twin sons born in Colombia in 1950.

On graduation in 1937 Jack successfully applied for the position of assistant to Dr PS Hudson, Director of the Imperial Bureau of Plant Breeding and Genetics in Cambridge, for an expedition to Lake Titicaca in the South American Andes. In the event this expedition did not materialize due to Hudson’s poor health, but a more comprehensive expedition was then planned for 1939, led by EK Balls, a professional plant collector. Thus began Jack’s lifelong interest in ‘the humble spud’.

In order to prepare himself for the expedition, and because Jack himself recognized that he ‘knew virtually nothing about the scientific aspects of potato species’, he received permission to travel to Leningrad to meet Russian scientists SM Bukasov and SW Juzepczuk who had already collected potatoes in South America, and to seek their advice about the planned British expedition. And it was during this visit that Jack met the world-famous geneticist NI Vavilovwho he described as ‘a colossus among his colleagues both within and outside the USSR….’. He acknowledged that it had been ‘a privilege to have known him’, and was certain that Vavilov’s influence helped to shape his career. The authorities in Leningrad even attempted to recruit Jack, perhaps half-halfheartedly, as a Soviet spy – a suggestion that horrified him and which he hastily rejected.

On a later visit he also met the controversial Trofim Lysenko whose influence with Stalin led to the banning of Mendelian genetics in the Soviet Union for a generation. Jack did not like Lysenko one little bit and thought him ‘a dangerous and wholly repellent person… a politician rather than a scientist’. Lysenko’s ascendancy under Stalin led to Vavilov’s disgrace and early death in 1943.

CCI05022012_00001The 1939 expedition was the first of more than a dozen that Jack made to South and North America in search of wild potato species, and became the basis of his taxonomic treatment of potatoes, first published in 1956, with several later revisions. He had a long collaboration with Danish botanist J Peter Hjerting. Together they published two major monographs on the wild potatoes of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay (1969) and Bolivia (1989) emphasizing not only the taxonomy but also breeding relationships to facilitate use in potato improvement.

Nelson Estrada

Jack was seconded for three years (1948-1951) by the Colombian government to establish a potato research station. Dr Nelson Estrada, a renowned Colombian potato breeder, was one of Jack’s protégés, and their hybridization research became a model for potato breeding programs. Not long after returning to the UK, Jack was appointed lecturer in botany at the University of Birmingham in 1952, and he remained there until his retirement in 1982. In 1961 he received a personal Chair in Taxonomic Botany, and in 1967 was appointed Mason Professor of Botany and head of department. Jack actively supported the genetic resources program at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru from 1973, and several of his PhD students did their thesis research there. He also acted as scientific adviser to the Commonwealth Potato Collection in Scotland (founded from germplasm he collected in 1939) and the USDA potato collection at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

In addition to his lifelong research on potatoes, Jack also spearheaded scientific interest in the Solanaceae plant family that also includes tomato, tobacco, chili peppers, and eggplant, and many species with pharmaceutical properties. With colleagues at Birmingham in the late 1950s he developed serological methods to study relationships between potato species. He was also one of the leading lights to produce a computer-mapped Flora of Warwickshire, a first of its kind, published in 1971.

One of Jack’s most important legacies, stemming from his knowledge of potatoes, was his participation in and contributions to the nascent genetic resources conservation movement of the 1960s. Led by eminent Australian wheat breeder, Sir Otto Frankel FRS, Jack joined the FAO Panel of Experts that included plant collector Erna Bennett and Illinois professor and cereals expert Jack Harlan, among others. They envisioned a world-wide effort to conserve plant genetic resources in a network of genebanks, and gave impetus to international efforts to collect and conserve plant varieties that were threatened with extinction. These efforts led eventually to the establishment of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR, now Bioversity International) in Rome, Italy under the auspices of the FAO.

Shortly after being appointed Mason Professor of Botany, Jack received support from the university to develop an international 1-year training course in plant genetic resources. In September 1969 five students enrolled on this MSc course that was subsequently offered for almost four decades – significantly longer than Frankel had predicted when Jack first mooted the idea. 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. The training continues at Birmingham, but in a different format.

Jack received many honors and awards, including the 1973 Frank N Meyer Memorial Award from the American Genetic Association for services to plant introduction, and the 1996 Distinguished Economic Botanist Award from The Society for Economic Botany. In 1984 he received the Linnean Medal from the Linnean Society of London, of which he was later elected president (1991-1994), a role that gave him immense pleasure*. He received an OBE for services to botany in 1994. He was awarded the Congress Medal of the XII International Botanical Congress held in Leningrad in 1975, of which he was a Vice President. In 1989 the Potato Association of America elected Jack as an Honorary Life Member. But what probably gave him most pleasure was the Vavilov Medal and the Honorary Professorship from the NI Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, awarded only twice, and Jack the only non-Russian. In a sense, his life’s work had come full circle from the moment in 1938 when, as a young man of 23, he met the great geneticist at the institute that now bears his name.

Following retirement from the university Jack continued to actively publish until 2004 when his memories of the 1939 expedition – and his initiation into the world of the potato – were published under the title Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes.

After Barbara died in 2005, and increasingly frail, Jack left his home of more than 50 years in Harborne, Birmingham and moved to Reading to be near family. And there he died in September 2007, aged 92.

* A meeting, The Future of Plant Genetic Resources, was held in Jack’s honour at The Linnean Society in May 2009.