Australian seed banks in disarray

Crisis in Australia’s seed banks
30 September 2010
by Elizabeth Finkel

Cosmos Online

Australia’s seed banks are hitting the dust, one by one, which may be violating an international treaty and could damage Australian agriculture down the track. (more at link)

David Tribe

Written by David Tribe

David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.

17 comments

  1. You can tell this is a junk article pretty easily. Look at the comparison embedded in this sentence: “There are an estimated 30,000 edible species, while 60% of the world’s calories are provided by just three: wheat, rice and corn.”
     
    That means, 29,997 other crops are out there, in addition to wheat, rice and corn. Ridiculous.
     
    They’re actually counting “many wild relatives” of cultivated crops as distinct species. This allows them to drastically (and disingenuously) inflate ‘biodiversity’ and ‘endangered species’ numbers.
     
    Biodiversity is just as much a secular religion as organic farming. They’d gain more converts if they didn’t fudge their numbers habitually.
     
    Here’s another howler: ”
    Biloela is the third seed bank to go into crisis in the last two years.
    “The bank at Tamworth, NSW (wheat, barley and oats) and the bank at Horsham, Victoria (oil seeds, such as canola and legumes) are safe because they carry the commercially valuable seeds.”
     
    If a seed bank is involved in things that are not commercially valuable, that means they’re storing weed seeds, instead. So then the central question is whether, and how much, we should invest in preserving ‘endangered weeds’.
     
    Then there’s the old mantra: “many wild species are disappearing due to urbanisation, farming and climate change”. Anyone who pays attention to this issue will have noted that for some reason, these species are almost never identified. And when they are identified, they never amount to what anyone would call “many”.

  2. I strongly disagree. This article was quite well written, explaining the value of seed banks and discussing the difficulty of maintaining germplasm.

    It’s true that “biodiversity” has become another catchphrase, something that people generally think is good without knowing why, and that’s a shame. Being a catchphrase isn’t enough, obviously, since countries keep closing their seed banks. Thankfully the US still has a strong germplasm resources system, but who knows how long funding will stick around.

    The thing is, seed banks are extremely important. As I mentioned in my comment on “When our friends lie”, germplasm has definitely been very useful to small and large breeders alike when it comes to maize, but maize isn’t the only one. Most crops started with a fairly small breeding base, so to find new genes for things like disease resistance and environmental tolerance we must look to landraces or wild relatives. So many of these wild relatives and landraces haven’t been collected yet, so we either have to collect them ASAP or preserve them in situ.

    If you have a chance, browse around the Agricultural Biodiversity blog. You’ll find tons of examples of why ag biodiversity, including preservation of wild relatives, is very important. The authors are friendly and will respond to comments.

    Finally, I just have to address your comment “If a seed bank is involved in things that are not commercially valuable, that means they’re storing weed seeds, instead.” There are a lot of crops that aren’t commercially valuable that are nonetheless very important. Just one = cassava. Another reason to keep these as-yet not commercially viable edible plants around – someday the current edible plants won’t work any more. For example, Ug99 has the potential to wipe out wheat as a valuable crop. What then? Perhaps other small grains that aren’t currently valuable on a large scale basis could be grown instead, things like amaranth, sorghum, or barley.

  3. Anastasia,
     
    I will strongly disagree, in turn. The notion that there are 29,997 crop species that are not wheat, rice and corn, means these species are not sexually compatible with wheat, rice and corn.
     
    Being gracious to the author and conceding that he/she is confused, you are still stuck with the notion of preserving landraces with no discernible economic value. As the art and science of transgenesis matures, the value of maintaining a museum of abandoned cultivars is of continuing lesser significance, and eventually will become zero.
     
    Introducing novel traits into elite germplasm is vastly superior to clumsy methods involving crosses between elite strains and weedy relatives. One scientist I know described the methods as ‘pushing a chain uphill’.
     
    Even so, there is significant value in maintaining ‘seed banks’, such as at Svalbard. When the gang-greens complain that vast tracts of crops are monocultures that ‘threaten biodiversity’, you can say, ‘Don’t worry, leave us alone. Your obsolete cultivars are stored safely in Svalbard. When farmers decide they want low-yielding seeds, they’ll be available.’

  4. Where exactly do you think the genes used in transgenesis come from? Occasionally they have origins in non-food species like bacteria, but many if not most genes for traits like environmental tolerance and disease resistance come from crop wild relatives. Their economic value is in providing genes for breeding or biotechnology. Beyond that, species like amaranth might not be useful now but they might be in the future. If we don’t save those seeds, they’ll be simply gone. Your stance seems awfully short sighted. Talk to the GEM program about how obsolete all their tropical maize varieties are. Ask about teosinte, tripsicum, and other maize relatives.

  5. Anastasia,
     
    I appreciate your patience, yet must still disagree. After thousands of years of selective breeding, recently augmented by marker-assisted selection, we’re very near the limit of what can be done with what can be found within the wheat, rice and corn genomes. As these efforts proceed, it is increasingly less likely that a (trans)gene of interest will be found to ‘already be there’.
     
    Meanwhile, the genomes of wheat, rice and corn, and their ‘wild/weedy’ relatives are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the genomes of everything else on the planet. If you look at that ratio, the likelihood that a gene of interest will be found in an ‘unrelated’ species is astronomically greater than the likelihood of finding it within its own species. Conversely, there is nearly 100% certainty that the gene of interest will be found in an ‘unrelated’ species.
     
    That leaves us with the question of why we should preserve seeds which are, admittedly, not commercially valuable. Thankfully, the answer to that is quite simple. These efforts are supported by those who insist that we don’t need genetic engineering, because all sorts of valuable genes are all still hidden in obsolete cultivars, just waiting to be found and used in breeding programs. Such claims are not well-founded. When not motivated by antipathy toward genetic engineering, they merely appeal to the wistful notion of the beauty of antique agriculture and how the seeds encapsulate the indigenous wisdom of farmers/’seed-savers’ who in past eras enjoyed a mystical connection with Nature.
     
    That said, I would draw your attention to a new development in insect-resistant cotton. [1] What are the odds of finding the gene(s) of interest in a collection of obsolete cotton seed? Vanishingly slim.
     
    ———–
     
    1. Coexpression of potato type I and II proteinase inhibitors gives cotton plants protection against insect damage in the field. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Published online before print August 9, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1009241107. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/34/15011.full

  6. It is not just for the development of new varieties for commercial production that germplasm in seed banks has value. It is also necessary for basic research, the kind of basic research that teaches us about the plant genomes that we intend to modify. For instance, the origin of the variant of the gene I am studying was tied down to an accession in a seed bank. So even if seed banks become less important for breeding elite cultivars, it will still remain crucial to basic research. You will find a lot of agreement with me on this, I could just walk down the hall and survey a slice of plant breeders (non-mystical types) and ask them if they think seed banks are not worth the money and I’ll bet you that my data will be 100% in disagreement with your assessment with a standard deviation of zero.

    That being said, I agree with Anastasia that you are wrong about the value of seed banks for breeding purposes, and will offer up another example. My own gene, sugary enhancer, makes a sweeter sweet corn. But to make it actually taste good, I hear it takes about five or six other genes that work with it. Genetic background is about as important as major genes for breeding. As we start getting into complicated engineering projects that tweak developmental genes, genetic background is going to be increasingly important. Let’s say a gene that makes field corn produce five ears per plant doesn’t work well in today’s elite germplasm, and breeders have to go back to some line of corn from a seed bank to get the right genetic background to take full advantage of this trait. This would not be possible without the bank that holds onto the genetic variation currently present in the species.

    I will be presenting a graduate student seminar on apomixis in maize in November, and one of the papers I will be talking about involved crosses between maize and tripsacum. If we can make corn produce genetically identical seeds through apomixis, then we would have ‘fixed’ heterosis (hybrid vigor), which would be a remarkable achievement. Unless of course, you favor tossing those accessions ‘of no discernible economic value’ out the window.

    “The notion that there are 29,997 crop species that are not wheat, rice and corn, means these species are not sexually compatible with wheat, rice and corn.” This is not true. There are plenty of things that aren’t ‘wheat rice and corn’ that are sexually compatible with those crops. And for polyploid crop species like wheat, the diploid genomes of ancestors and relatives are useful for introducing important genes into modern varieties today. Check out Jorge Dubcovsky’s work on enhancing the protein, iron, & zinc content of wheat.

    Eric, let me know when the seed banks stop actually providing valuable genes and then we can talk about obsolescence.

  7. Of course Eric is correct. We don’t need wild wheat because we’ve solved rust issues once and for all. And social-economic catastrophe will never shake the dominant food supply. We’ll never have an event like WW II again, and so local and wild food species are completely useless. A country like Greece will never face starvation and forage for and collect wild greens to stave off malnutrition. Africans will avoid millet and teff as chickens fed on African produced soy protein become the norm. And those darn Peruvians will stop eating those nasty nasturtium related mashu crops and oxalis oca crops. Finally, wheat and corn and rice and soy will reign supreme and those foodies who insist that they have highly developed diverse palletes will be reduced to eating “infusions” of flavor into soy based components.
    We’ve learned and done it all in the 50 years post Watson and Crick, and any varietal developed prior to that date is no better than eating yesterday’s scraps. For that matter, let’s recycle Shakespeare’s worthless tomes so we can print something modern and useful, say Lady Gaga lyrics? Certainly the paper used for the bible and koran could be put to better use, after all, we have Dr Laura and Oprah to guide our souls. Paper makes good fire starter for burning libraries as a whole – dusty repositories of facts proved fiction.
    History is a clear linear path of progress and ADM will be supermarket to the world for all times to come. Middle Ages never occurred and claims opposing this are no more than a marketing schemes cooked up by anti-progressive activists trying to make a buck. It’s been progress from day one, and conservators are nothing but scat collectors fetishizing a dead and useless past.
    All that satire aside, I do agree in situ genetic stewardship is the best way to go, and do think that many gene banks make exaggerated claims in desperate attempts to gain funding. There may only be 10,000 wild and cultivated food species, maybe only half that. People make desperate inflations when faced with denialists of history, who arrogantly want to pretend we have it all figured out now. yes, we have made great progress in the last 50 years – but really – what makes you think that we’ve assessed the genetic diversity of our food crops and that the bank is almost empty, and that “Conversely, there is nearly 100% certainty that the gene of interest will be found in an ‘unrelated’ species” – where do you get that certainty??
    You’ve shown your true stripes sir – black and white and poorly read all over. Perhaps consider adding to your library a few history books. Or even one on crop genetics.

  8. The very reason we need to preserve biodiversity is shown up by Eric’s comments. The environment is very diverse and the plant responses complex and we don’t understand all the requirements for future success. We need to keep as many options open as possible when we don’t fully understand the future.
     
    Making some options (GM) too expensive than necessary by overegulation closes down other options like seed banks, as it decreases available investment resources.

  9. Karl,
     
    Anything you say about the value of basic research works for me. It should, for anyone.
     
    That bit aside, pointing out the commercial value of old cultivars has little to do with my point about preserving cultivars with no commercial value.
     
    Of course there is value in apomictic maize, which would be something worth preserving in the accessions if it has been proven to exist among them. Same with perennial maize.
     
    As for the rest — I would suspect the Vavilov saga inspires many of those involved, but the majority of landraces involved are not worth dying for, certainly not when superior technology is available.
     
    And, considering that the insect and microbial pests and weeds associated with the cultivation of wheat, rice and maize have co-evolved with those crops, it’s nearly mandatory to look outside the crop genomes for the genes and traits of interest.
     
    Even so, I understand the necessity of throwing a sop to the greenpeacers; tremendous calamities could easily ensue from agreeing with these points.

  10. Matthew,
     
    I very nearly despaired of agreeing which you, but I do. Very nearly.
     
    The value we place on antique cultivars is inversely related to our understanding of plant genomes and transgenesis. When both are fully understood, the value of seed banks will crash and the putative value of what is preserved at Svalbard will be viewed as a betrayal of what humans need in the imaginary time of crisis.

  11. David,
     
    You are absolutely right. The more onerous the regulations of transgenic crops become, the more valuable become the outdated cultivars. But there is a limit, and I submit, the limit of ‘gene-mining’ those old, clumsy (top-notch, for their time) events has very nearly been achieved.

  12. I’m going to add to the general disagreement with Eric’s statements –

    As the art and science of transgenesis matures, the value of maintaining a museum of abandoned cultivars is of continuing lesser significance, and eventually will become zero.
     
    Introducing novel traits into elite germplasm is vastly superior to clumsy methods involving crosses between elite strains and weedy relatives. One scientist I know described the methods as ‘pushing a chain uphill’.

    Maybe in 50 or 100 years we’ll just be able to get plants to do whatever we want transgenically without a reference library to pull from – there are far too many abandoned cultivars and wild relatives (and sub-types thereof) to expect complete knowledge of how they work in my lifetime at least – and our current knowledge of genomics, proteomics, transcriptomes, ionomes (and any other omes I’ve omitted) is so sparse as to make it nigh on impossible to predict or model exactly what a given gene will do in a given germplasm – remove the supply of seed from diverse species and varieties of species and you remove the capacity to mine these genomes for useful candidates in the future (good luck generating transcriptional libraries under various growth condition for a variety that no longer exists – maybe in a century it’d be modelable from genome information alone, but I doubt it)
    It’s also pretty foolhardy imo to use the all eggs in one basket approach, relying solely on transgenics to resurrect old traits (working on introducing traits to corn I’m often rather jealous of how much breeders can still do, and of the fact that if they manage a 1-2% increase in yield, or a 7/10 win ratio in the field)

    ‘gene-mining’ those old, clumsy (top-notch, for their time) events has very nearly been achieved.

    Based on what exactly? As far as I’m aware even for varieties of corn we’re still only really looking at a handful of varieties in very broad terms (B73, Mo17 and whatever else Hirel et al work with) without any real clarity on the horizon – I’d assume that other crops are in about the same position – Tolenaar did a lot of pretty cool work on hybrids across generations at a crop physiology level but afaik never drilled down to individual plant level never mind genomic differences etc – we’re still gene-mining arabidopsis, the day we can say we’re done with old cultivars of even the top 3 crops is, in my mind, scheduled well after I retire (and likely after my 2 week old son retires)

    That leaves us with the question of why we should preserve seeds which are, admittedly, not commercially valuable. Thankfully, the answer to that is quite simple. These efforts are supported by those who insist that we don’t need genetic engineering, because all sorts of valuable genes are all still hidden in obsolete cultivars, just waiting to be found and used in breeding programs.

    Who are any of us to judge what is commercially valuable in a field that is so poorly understood? I’m pretty pro-GE (by essentially anyones standards) and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if transgenes from teosinte, or from a 1930’s corn inbred were the leading commercial traits in 30 or 40 years time (I equally wouldn’t be surprised if these traits came from deep sea vent organisms, E.coli, or essentially any other organism (although animal origin would surprise me b/c nobody will touch those with a 15′ barge pole for fear of bad PR)) – I’d be incredibly upset if the reason given for not testing a gene was because it was from a non-commercial viable variety as it completely doesn’t follow that b/c the varieity isn’t great anymore that any individual mutant allele (for instance associated with resistance to a disease) or pattern expression for a given gene couldn’t be useful in elite hybrids.

  13. Ewan,
    I would like to hear from you about ongoing projects to sequence the many accessions of, i.e., maize cultivars which reside only in gene-banks. If those claimed to be ‘of no commercial interest’ (quoting the original article) are nonetheless as valuable as you suggest, such projects would be rampant and aggressive.
    However, with the planetary genome — a mundane miracle which allows a gene from somewhere to function in something vastly elsewhere — it is orders of magnitude more likely that a gene of interest will be found in a sexually-incompatible organism, than in a genome (maize) that’s been kicked about and rebundled over and over for about 6,000 years.
    Your projection of the utility of transgenesis surging to the fore in perhaps 50-100 years appears not to take into account what Craig Venter has achieved with ‘synthetic biology’. To be sure, Venter’s project is to employ the smallest genome possible, but advances in this field will accelerate in accordance with Moore’s Law.
    The advances of in silico plant biology will I am sure move ahead as fast as in silico per se, barring unintended circumstances such as bio-Luddism.

  14. Eric, allow me to speculate with no data at all.
    The approximate paradigm is one-gene one-protein, not one-gene one-trait. So it’s likely that most traits are determined by constellations of genes and that evolution has caused genes to tend to congregate in organisms that find them useful when they coexist.
    This isn’t going to be absolute. But we would expect that, for example, resistance to a certain parasite could more likely be evolved as a cluster of several genes, and a cultivated variety may lack such resistance or have diminished resistance because it lacks one of the set of mutually supportive genes.
    When you are talking about a simple one-gene trait, such as the ability to synthesize the cry protein that directly affects a certain pest, you may expect that trait to work over a wide range of species, genera, or families. But when a single trait is affected by many genes in an intricate dance, look for the missing gene in a closely related plant.

  15. “Ewan, I would like to hear from you about ongoing projects to sequence the many accessions of, i.e., maize cultivars..”
    Its worth noting that sequence a maize genome is a mammoth task. Its unlikely that “many accessions” from genebanks will be sequenced as this approach with possibly not be cost effective for decades.

  16. “You can tell this is a junk article pretty easily. Look at the comparison embedded in this sentence: “There are an estimated 30,000 edible species, while 60% of the world’s calories are provided by just three: wheat, rice and corn.
    That means, 29,997 other crops are out there, in addition to wheat, rice and corn. Ridiculous.”
    You saved me time in assessing your `contribution’ right there. That “there are an estimated…” is a comment I have no trouble accepting – I’ve got about 25 of them in my back `lawn’, though I haven’t had to make bread out of kikuya roots as yet.
    I see nothing that makes the claim of how many are cultivated as crops.
    Looking on the bright side, there’s a little piggie somewhere who may have to build his house of bricks.

  17. “You can tell this is a junk article pretty easily. Look at the comparison embedded in this sentence: “There are an estimated 30,000 edible species, while 60% of the world’s calories are provided by just three: wheat, rice and corn.”
    That means, 29,997 other crops are out there, in addition to wheat, rice and corn. Ridiculous.”
    You can indeed. I have at least 25 edible species in a square meter of my back yard, though I haven’t felt the need for kikuya root bread yet. Nowhere does the author claim that there are 30,000 _crops_. Somewhere there is a little piggie who needs to build his house of bricks.
    Thank you for flagging your `contribution’ so early. As you noted – ridiculous.

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