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.

Four seasons in one day . . . and white asparagus

I’ve just returned from a week-long trip to Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. And on two of the days, our meetings were held in the former Bundestag (the German parliament building) in United Nations Plaza, just south of the city center, and close to the south/ west bank of the mighty River Rhine. It’s now home to the Crop Trust.


The River Rhine, looking southeast from the Kennedy Bridge (Kennedybrücke).

CGIARI am leading the evaluation of an international genebanks program, part of the portfolio of the CGIAR (now the CGIAR Consortium). The evaluation has been commissioned by the Independent Evaluation Arrangement (IEA, an independent unit that supports the CGIAR Consortium) whose offices are hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. Regular readers of my blog will know that for almost nine years from 1973 and 19 years from 1991, I worked for two international agricultural research centers, CIP and IRRI respectively. This evaluation of the CGIAR Research Program (CRP) on Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections (also known as the Genebanks CRP) focuses on 11 (of 15) CGIAR centers with genebanks.

Joining me in Bonn were two other team members: Dr Marisé Borja (from Spain) and Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd (from the UK). Our meeting was managed by IEA staff member Ms Jenin Assaf. Dr Sirkka Immonen, the IEA Senior Evaluation Officer was unable to travel at the last moment, but we did ‘meet’ with her online at various times during the four days of our meetings.

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On our way to dinner last Thursday evening. L to R: Jenin Assaf, Marisé Borja, Brian Ford-Lloyd, and yours truly.

Brian and I traveled together from Birmingham, flying from BHX to Frankfurt, and catching the fast train from there to Siegburg/Bonn, a 20 minute taxi ride into the center of the city. The weather on arrival in Frankfurt was quite bright and sunny. By the time we reached Bonn it was raining very heavily indeed. In fact over the course of the next few days we experienced everything that a northern European Spring can throw at you (as in the Crowded House song, Four Seasons in One Day).

Now you can see from the photo above, I’m still using a walking stick¹, and expect to do so for several months more. While walking is definitely becoming easier, my lower leg and ankle do swell up quite badly by the end of the day. I therefore decided to wear ‘flight socks’ for travel. Even so, I had not anticipated the long walk we’d have in Frankfurt Airport. We arrived to a C pier, and it must have been at least a mile by the time we were on the platform waiting for our intercity express (ICE) to Bonn. Now that 40 minute journey was interesting, reaching over 300 kph on several occasions!

We stayed at the Stern Hotel in the central market square in Bonn, which is dominated at the northern end by the Bundesstadt Bonn – Altes Rathaus, the city’s municipal headquarters (it’s the building at the far end of the square in the image below).


On the first night, last Monday, we met with an old friend and colleague, Dr Marlene Diekmann, and her husband Jürgen. Marlene works for the German development aid agency, GIZ, and was one of my main contacts whenever I had to visit Germany while working for IRRI. Jürgen was the Experiment Station manager for ICARDA based in Aleppo for many years before the Syrian civil war forced the closure of the center there and evacuation of personnel. South of Bonn is the Ahr Valley, a small red wine growing area where Marlene and I have walked through the vineyards in all weathers. It’s amazing how the vines are cultivated on the steep slopes of the valley.

Arriving at the end of April, and with the weather so unpredictable, and unseasonably cold, we missed the cherry blossom festival in Bonn a week earlier. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any cherry blossom anywhere in the city.

Cherry blossom in the streets of Bonn, mid-April 2016. (Photo courtesy of Luigi Guarino).

But there was another delight – culinary – that we did experience, having arrived just as Spargelzeit or ‘asparagus time’ began.

With so many food options to choose from in Bonn, Marlene suggested that we should try the Gaststätte Em Höttche, a traditional German restaurant right next door to the Stern Hotel. That was fine by me as I didn’t fancy a long walk in any case. The food was good (as was the weissbier or wheat beer), and we ate there the following night as well.

And since it was Spargelzeit, it wasn’t just any old asparagus. But white asparagus! Big, white, succulent spears of heaven. Just click on the image below for a more detailed explanation. Enjoyed on their own with a butter sauce, or with ham, schnitzel or fish (halibut was my particular favorite), white asparagus is offered on most menus from the end of April to June. The Germans just go crazy for it.

white asparagus

On the final evening, we had dinner with a number of colleagues from the Crop Trust, at the Restaurant Oliveto in Adenauerallee, less than half a kilometer from the hotel, on the bank of the Rhine.

After a wrap-up meeting on the Friday morning, Brian and I returned to Frankfurt by train, and caught the late afternoon Lufthansa flight back to BHX. Where the weather was equally unpredictable – and cold!

As far as the program evaluation is concerned, the hard work is just beginning, with genebank site visits planned (but not yet confirmed) to Peru (CIP), Colombia (CIAT), and Mexico (CIMMYT) in July/August, to Ethiopia (ILRI) and Kenya (ICRAF) in October, as well as the CGIAR Consortium Office in Montpellier before the end of May, and FAO in Rome by mid-June. We’ll be back in Rome to draft our report in mid-November. Before that, there will be lots of documents to review, and interviews over Skype. No peace for the wicked!

¹ The walking stick came in handy on the return journey. Waiting in line at Frankfurt Airport to board our flight to Birmingham, one of the Lufthansa ground staff pulled me and Brian out of the queue and took us first through the boarding gate, even offered me a seat until the door to the air-bridge was opened. And we boarded the plane first.