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 – https://thankqportal.kew.org/portal/public/donate/donate.aspx
 If you donate online, please also email Jill at commemorative@kew.org 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.

Food for the soul . . .

The British are a nation of gardeners. And as the memories of Winter fade (although still hanging on from day to day), and Spring exerts her influence daily, it is really wonderful to see all the gardens coming into bloom. Each day there is something new to see. The fine display of snowdrops and crocuses has been over for a few weeks now, but soon all the daffodils will be in flower, their golden trumpets nodding in the breeze of a typical March day. Then they will be followed by tulips in all their glory – my favorite Spring flowers. I’ve already seen primroses during my daily constitutional, and oxslips are now opening in our garden. These floral displays are surely food for the soul, and it’s no coincidence that I made the decision, several decades ago, to become a professional botanist.

Each year, many new flower varieties are released for everyone to admire and enjoy in their own gardens. Just look at this exquisite display of daffodil varieties that I photographed at the Chelsea Flower Show a couple of years ago.

Nevertheless, plant enthusiasts always seem to want what the natural world doesn’t easily give them: the red delphinium, the blue rose, the black tulip, and even a yellow sweetpea (Lathyrus odoratus).

Although many if not most delphiniums are that beautiful blue, red-flowered varieties are now quite common. Plant breeders must have searched for ‘red’ genes in related species. Black tulips have been around for centuries. However, a really deep blue rose remains elusive. The so-called ‘blue’ roses are but a pale imitation of blue, more a pale mauve.

Sweet_Pea-01But a yellow sweetpea (Lathyrus odoratus)? From images I’ve viewed on the web, many are not true sweetpeas but other species of Lathyrus. It seems, however, that some creamy-yellow varieties have been developed, although a deep yellow one has not yet been produced that I could sniff out. Most are are white, red, pink, blue, or purple, and shades in between, and most of the varieties on the market have large, blousy and delicately fragrant blooms.

In the 1980s, when I was working at the University of Birmingham, a Malaysian student of mine, Dr Abdul bin Ghani Yunus, made a study of Lathyrus sativus, a common food grain legume in several parts of the world, particularly India and Ethiopia. It’s a so-called ‘ famine legume’, known commonly as khesari dahl, as it can survive and produce seeds under conditions where other crops fail. But it has an important major drawback: the seeds contain a neurotoxin, which can cause an irreversible paralysis if consumed without proper preparation of the seeds before cooking.

Our research was not, I hasten to add, concerned with producing a safer variety – although these have now been developed by a number of research institutes. Rather, we wanted to try and understand the origin of this crop species, and its relationships with other Lathyrus species. And to do that, we assembled a large number of seed samples of as many Lathyrus species as we could obtain from research institutes and botanical gardens around the world.

Ghani’s doctoral thesis focused on the biosystematics of Lathyrus sativus, and included making crosses with several species with yellow flowers [1]. And I still don’t know how it came about, but I was approached by someone from a ‘local’ sweetpea society who asked if we could attempt crosses between these yellow-flowered species and the sweetpea. We did make a few crosses, all unsuccessful I’m sorry to say, but we didn’t have the time or the resources to translate this hobby approach into a meaningful hybridization exercise. I’ve often wondered whether sweetpea breeders ever followed up on what we attempted three decades ago. If they did, I assume they had as little success as Ghani and I did using the yellow Lathyrus types, all of which had rather small flowers.

Breeders of food plants aim to produce healthier, more disease and pest resistant types, resilient to climate change, with better nutritional qualities, and higher yielding. Their aim is to sustain agricultural productivity, and ensure we have enough food to fill our stomachs.

Flower breeders also look for healthier and disease resistant varieties. But they also aim to produce new forms with brighter colours, bigger blooms, and more fragrant where possible, and as such, they are breeding plants as ‘food for the soul’. Just look at what the flower breeders have done in recent years. Aren’t we fortunate?

[1] Yunus, A.G. & M.T. Jackson, 1991. The gene pools of the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.). Plant Breeding 106, 319-328.

The humble spud

Humble? Boiled, mashed, fried, roast, chipped or prepared in many other ways, the potato is surely the King of Vegetables. And for 20 years in the 1970s and 80s, potatoes were the focus of my own research.

The potato (Solanum tuberosum) has something scientifically for everyone: the taxonomist or someone interested in crop diversity, geneticist or molecular biologist, breeder, agronomist, plant pathologist or entomologist, seed production specialist, biotechnologist, or social scientist. So many challenges – so many opportunities, especially since many potatoes are polyploids; that is, they have multiple sets of chromosomes, from 2x=24 to 6x=72.

MTJ collecting cultivated potatoes in 1974Much of my own work – both in the Andes of Peru in the early 70s and once I was back in Birmingham during the 80s – focused on potato genetic resources, understanding the evolutionary dynamics of speciation, and the distribution and breeding value of wild potatoes.

If you’re interested in species diversity, then the potato is the crop for you. In South America there are many indigenous varieties integral to local farming systems at high altitude. Grown alongside other crops such as oca (Oxalis tuberosa) and other Andean tubers of limited distribution, quinoa, and introduced crops such as barley and faba bean (that must have been brought to South America by the Spanish in the 16th century and afterwards). In a recent series on BBC TV (The Inca – Masters of the Cloud), archaeologist and South American expert Dr Jago Cooper repeatedly talked about the wonders of Incan agriculture as one of the foundations of that society yet, disappointingly chose not to illustrate anything of indigenous agriculture today. Farmers still grow potatoes and other crops on the exactly the same terraces that the Incas constructed hundreds of years ago (see my post about Cuyo Cuyo, for example). The continued cultivation of native potato varieties today is a living link with the Incas.

Native varieties of potato from Peru

Native cultivated potatoes are found throughout the Andes from Colombia and Venezuela in the north, south through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, and into northern Argentina. One of the main centres of diversity lies in the region of Lake Titicaca that straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia.

Another important centre of diversity is in the island of Chiloé , southeast of Puerto Montt, a well-known potato growing region of Chile.

The wild tuber-bearing Solanums have a much wider distribution, from the USA south through Mexico and Central America, and widely in South America. And from the coast of Peru to over 4000 m in the high Andes. They certainly have a wide ecological range. But how many wild species are there? Well, it depends who you follow, taxonomy-wise.

SM Bukasob

SM Bukasov

Some of the earliest studies (in the 1930s) were made by Russian potato experts SM Bukasov and SV Juzepczuk, contemporaries of the great geneticist and plant breeder, Nikolai I Vavilov.

In 1938, a young Cambridge graduate, Jack Hawkes (on the left below), visited the Soviet Union to meet with Bukasov (and Vavilov) as he would soon be joining a year-long expedition to the Americas to collect wild and cultivated potatoes. His PhD thesis (under the supervision of Sir Redcliffe Salaman) was one of the first taxonomies of wild potatoes. By 1963, Hawkes had published a second edition of A Revision of the Tuber-Bearing Solanums. By 1990 [1] the number of wild species that he recognized had increased to 228 and seven cultivated ones. Hawkes (and his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting) focused much of their effort on the wild potatoes of the southern cone countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) [2] and Bolivia [3]. Working at the National Agrarian University and the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina, Lima, Peru, potato breeder and taxonomist Carlos Ochoa (on the right below) spent several decades exploring the Andes of his native country, and discovered many new species. But he also produced monographs on the potatoes of Bolivia [4] and Peru [5].

Both Hawkes and Ochoa – rivals to some extent – primarily used plant morphology to differentiate the species they described or recognized, but also using the tools of biosystematics (crossing experiments) and a detailed knowledge of species distributions and ecology.

MTJ and JGH collecting wild potatoes

March 1975, somewhere above Canta in Lima Province. Probably a small population of Solanum multidissectum = S. candolleanum (that now includes S. bukasovii)

I made only one short collecting trip with Jack Hawkes, in March 1975 just before I returned to Birmingham to defend my PhD thesis. Travelling in the Andes between Cerro de Paso, Huanuco and Lima, at one point he asked me to stop our vehicle. “There are wild potatoes near here,” he told me. “To be specific, I think we’ll find Solanum bukasovii”. And within minutes, he had. That’s because Jack had a real feel for the ecology of wild potatoes; he could almost smell them out. I’m sure Carlos Ochoa was just the same, if not more so.


David Spooner

The potato taxonomist’s mantle was taken up in the early 1990s by USDA Agricultural Research Service professor David Spooner at the University of Wisconsin. Over two decades, and many field expeditions, he has published an impressive number of papers on potato biology. More importantly, he added molecular analyses to arrive at a comprehensive revision and understanding of the diversity of the tuber-bearing Solanums. In fact, in December 2014, Spooner and his co-authors published one of the most important papers on the biodiversity of wild and cultivated potatoes, recognizing just 107 wild and four cultivated species [6]. For anyone interested in crop evolution and systematics, and potatoes in particular, I thoroughly recommend you take the time to look at their paper (available as a PDF file).


[1] Hawkes, JG. 1990. The Potato – Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London.
[2] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting. 1969. The Potatoes of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – A Biosystematic Study. Annals of Botany Memoirs No. 3, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
[3] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting. 1989. The Potatoes of Bolivia – Their Breeding Value and Evolutionary Relationships. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
[4] Ochoa, CM. 1990. The Potatoes of South America: Bolivia. Cambridge University Press.
[5] Ochoa, CM. 2004. The Potatoes of South America: Peru. Part 1. The Wild Species. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru.
[6] Spooner, DM, M Ghislain, R Simon, SH Jansky & T Gavrilenko. 2014. Systematics, diversity, genetics, and evolution of wild and cultivated potatoes. Bot. Rev. 80:283–383
DOI 10.1007/s12229-014-9146-y.


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 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.

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.