“Doomsday” seed vault to open soon

An effort to protect the world’s germplasm will culminate in the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on 26 February 2008, as reported by the BBC. This is a great idea, especially as habitat loss combines with climate change. We’re going to loose a lot of species and sub-species, which could leave the food supply vulnerable. Crop breeders use lines from many sources to put together the best varieties. Genetic engineers also need a source of diverse genes. Loosing too many wild and cultivated varieties of food crops could increase the chances of loosing a species to disease, climate change, etc. In other words, without a large enough gene pool, the species might not recover from a disaster.
I do want to point out again that the USDA has had a similar program for years. I actually worked for a branch of it in Maryland. The program is called the National Plant Germplasm System of the Agricultural Research Service (NPGS, ARS). As of 27 Jan 2008, the holdings include: 219 families, 2022 genera, 12486 species, and 484305 ascensions.
Just to give you an idea of the vast size of this program, NPGS has 25600 ascensions of maize from over 100 countries, 1852 ascensions of watermelon from over 70 countries, and 120 ascensions of pineapple from over 20 countries. Each ascension has the following data associated with it: “when the accession was received by the NPGS, the improvement status, reproductive uniformity, all names associated with the accession, intellectual property rights status, availability, general narrative, pedigree narrative, collection site description, source history including people responsible for acquiring, and any observation data.”
These people aren’t just collecting seeds. Seeds from many types of plants have declining germination rates over time, so to keep the lines alive, the seeds have to be planted and new seeds harvested every so often. Some plants, like many types of potatoes, don’t grow well from seed, so have to be grown from a tuber. Others have to be grown from cuttings. These “alternative reproduction methods” of plants make keeping them alive very complicated: the plants have to be re-cut and transferred to new containers every few months.
I’m keen to make this known because I feel that the plant side of the USDA gets ignored. When the USDA is mentioned, it’s usually in a negative light. I hope that people know that the meat side and the plant side of the USDA are entirely different entities.