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The Legacy of Plant Life

Hands sorting seeds on table (AP Images)
Technicians at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center sort samples of wild maize seeds in Mexico.

The international community is engaged in a concerted effort to safeguard the genetic wealth of the plant kingdom. Seeds and plant samples — hundreds of thousands of different types — are being secured and stored so that they will not be lost to climate change, habitat depletion, or other natural or man-made disasters.

Preserving the discoveries of the future and the crops of today motivate the effort. Science has learned to modify the genetic code of plants, extracting a desired characteristic of one plant, and inserting it into another. This form of bioengineering is an accelerated version of the cross pollination that farmers have practiced for centuries. Today’s capabilities raise awareness that any plant, anywhere, may hold a biological secret that will someday aid humankind — a cure for disease, an enriched food, or other useful compound.

“Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture provide the biological basis for world food security, and support the livelihoods of every person on Earth,” according to a U.N. conservation plan for plant genetic resources. The 1996 document puts the international community’s concern about and responsibility for plant diversification on record.

International Efforts

An international agricultural research consortium supports 11 gene banks, safeguarding more than 650,000 genetic samples of crop, forage, shrubs, and trees and keeping them in the public domain. The Center for Global International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) is dedicated to “conserving these collections for the long-term and to making the germplasm [a collection of genetic resources for an organism] and associated information available as global public goods.”

CGIAR maintains these vast storehouses of seeds and plants for the benefit of all humanity, according to its Web site: “Seed contributions have helped lay the foundations of recovery by jumpstarting agricultural growth in countries emerging from conflict such as Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, and Somalia.” Areas stricken by natural disaster can retrieve precious seeds from the gene banks to revive plant life uniquely adapted to their specific climate and conditions.

U.S. Efforts

Cary Fowler in cold weather gear standing in front of ice wall (AP Images)
Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Fund, is inside the ice-bound Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

The U.S. National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) maintains a network of gene banks to preserve genetic traits that can be used to combat emerging pests, pathogens, diseases, and other threats to the world’s supply of food and fiber.

The NPGS collections include approximately 511,000 samples of seeds, tissues, and whole plants at more than 20 gene banks in the United States under the authority of the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many of the gene banks also receive support from universities and state agricultural experiment stations.

Useful traits identified in the samples have helped inoculate U.S. crops from dangerous pathogens. A wheat plant collected in Turkey in 1948, for example, effectively resisted a fungus that threatened U.S. crops 15 years later. Its genetics are now incorporated into virtually every wheat variety grown in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, according to ARS documents.

A Russian wheat aphid spread to the United States in 1986, threatening the entire nation’s commercial wheat crop. ARS scientists began an urgent examination of NPGS grain stores and found hundreds of potentially resistant genes. A crash project developed a resistant strain, thus averting a crop crisis.

Seeds in the Deep Freeze

Inside the Arctic Circle, 1,000 kilometers north of mainland Norway, average temperatures are so low that electricity isn’t required to maintain freezing temperatures. There, dug into a mountainside, surrounded by permafrost and thick rock, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds hundreds of thousands of seed samples from all over the world in frozen isolation until mishap or disaster requires their use to replenish seeds native to warmer climates.

Built by the Kingdom of Norway with international cooperation and maintained by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Svalbard Vault is the world’s final insurance policy for protecting plant diversity. Gene banks all over the world deposit duplicate samples of their stockpiles with Svalbard for safekeeping. The Svalbard vault insures that gene banks elsewhere have back-ups in case of unpredictable institutional failure — lost samples, neglectful management, or depleted funding.

Since the Svalbard vault opened in 2008, the U.S. germplasm system has sent more than 20,000 plant samples to it for safekeeping; and the United States intends to send samples of its entire collection gradually over the next several years.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust is a public-private partnership raising funds to support key crop collections. In keeping with international plant diversity agreements, the trust works to advance an efficient and sustainable global system for long-term conservation of plant genetic resources.

The diversity of plant life on Earth is so great that it eludes humankind’s attempts to quantify it all. Estimates of the number of known plant species range from approximately 300,000 to 400,000, but deep in remote forests, or high on mountain peaks, thousands more unknown species could be awaiting their first sighting by a scientist who recognizes their uniqueness.

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