Genebanks safeguard and make available the genetic diversity of our food crops. This is a critically important endeavor, but protecting and sharing plant materials – seeds, tissues in test tubes etc. – alone is not enough. Beyond the cold rooms and the laboratories, the greenhouses and the regeneration fields, there is a wealth of information that must accompany this diversity if both external users of the genebank, and indeed the genebank’s own staff, are to do their work effectively and efficiently.
This information includes everything from where and when a seed was collected to who requested and received samples, whether it be in the last month, last year or a decade ago. But keeping track of this breadth of information is no easy feat.
A genebank manager, like any head of a complex operation, is always on the lookout for ways to improve the countless big and small activities that make up the average work day. Data management is essential to this task.
Every genebank keeps track of its collection – some do this with paper and pencil or with Excel spreadsheets, and some have developed their own more or less fancy, bespoke information systems. For example, since 2005, the
Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research genebank in Germany has GBIS. In Brazil, Embrapa’s Recursos Genéticos e Biotecnologia has Alelo. Many of the 1700 genebanks around the world, however, lack the information technology tools needed to manage their collections as effectively as they could and should be doing.
“It might not be talked about or acknowledged enough, but proper information systems are vital for genebank curators to manage their collections,” says Matija Obreza, Information Systems Manager at the Crop Trust. “By streamlining the genebank workflows and by automating procedures, we minimize human error. And this starts with the capture and management of passport data. But it doesn’t stop there.”
Passport data includes a number unique to the sample in that genebank, and such basic information about it as its taxonomic identification, the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the collecting site, who collected it and when, and indeed in some cases which other genebank it came from. All of this is very helpful for end users choosing material to order, but genebank managers also need to keep track of everything that happens to their collection in the genebank itself – things like if an accession has enough seeds for immediate distribution; when it was last tested for viability and how much it scored; when it will need to be next regenerated; whether it has been backed up to another genebank and to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, etc.
“In the 70s, 80s and 90s, a lot of information was recorded in notebooks and folders, and archived in file cabinets. There, it cannot be accessed by researchers,” says Matija. “As the years pass and people retire or change posts, this information gets lost or forgotten. And now more than ever, we need this information. Who knows? Maybe some obscure variety collected in the tropical forests of Costa Rica or Ecuador can help us adapt one of our main crops to drought or to a disease.”
PROMOTING EFFECTIVE DATA MANAGEMENT
That is why the Crop Trust and USDA initiated the GRIN-Global project back in 2008, with Bioversity International also involved. GRIN-Global grew out of the USDA’s own in-house genebank data management system, the Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN, 1986 – 2015). Since 2011, GRIN-Global has been available without cost to all genebanks.
“For the world to have a rational, cost-effective global system for ex situ conservation, we all need to know what diversity we have safeguarded, and where – and in what state – it is housed,” says Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust. “With proper IT management tools, genebanks can talk to each other and to their users.”
Marie further explains that it is part of the Crop Trust’s job to find ways in which the organization can help genebanks strengthen their procedures and maximize the use and impact of the limited resources they have. GRIN-Global is one of these tools.
Another is Genesys. The Crop Trust has been developing a tool that allows for an easy, one-click automated transfer and sharing of information from GRIN-Global to Genesys, the global portal where genebanks from around the world can share information about their collections. This is currently being tested by CIMMYT, USDA, and both Portugal’s and the Czech Republic’s national programs.
In order to provide support to GRIN-Global users, the Crop Trust and CIMMYT agreed three years ago to establish what we’re calling the GRIN-Global Frontrunner position. Since then, Juan Carlos Alarcón, who is based in CIMMYT’s headquarters, has been promoting GRIN-Global around the world, providing training in its implementation, and answering queries from users as they arise.
“I receive requests for information and support from all over the world — from Jordan to Chile, from Azerbaijan to Ecuador,” says Juan Carlos.
More and more genebanks are using GRIN-Global to manage their collections, including international CGIAR centers– like CIMMYT in Mexico– and several national programs. An additional number are evaluating the system, with support from Juan Carlos.
Genebanks do not have to develop their own systems “from scratch,” says Juan Carlos. “You can simply download it from the GRIN-Global website. And because GRIN-Global is open source software, genebanks can tailor it to meet their specific requirements.”
GENEBANK INFORMATION SYSTEMS ASSESSMENTS
Over the past two years, the Crop Trust has carried out assessments of existing documentation and information systems in 26 national genebanks across the world. This work is part of the Crop Wild Relatives project, which is generously funded by Norway. The message from these assessments has been that even the best-performing of these genebanks can make substantial improvements in data management.
“Even though GRIN-Global can be downloaded for free,” Matija warns, “a significant investment is needed to adopt and adapt the software to any given genebank. That is why, following the assessments, the Crop Trust has committed to supporting upgrades in various national programs, including through training in GRIN-Global if the genebank decides to adopt the software.”
“In many cases putting in place the proper infrastructure is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome – servers, computers, a backup power generator,” says Juan Carlos. “Some genebanks also need additional IT support.”
Beyond the software and the infrastructure, it takes time, dedicated staff members and proper training of the staff.
Case in point: Bolivia’s INIAF, who went live with GRIN-Global in November 2014, is a great example of a national program doing things the right way. In May 2015, INIAF requested support for the installation and implementation of GRIN-Global. They also requested training for their staff, and in September 2015, the Crop Trust organized training for 22 people during a 4-day workshop that was carried out in the city of Cochabamba.
Edwin Iquize, Professional in Information Systems and Database Management of Genetic Resources at INIAF, is keen to point out that INIAF gives the highest priority to documenting the management and conservation of genetic resources. “The support provided by the Crop Trust strengthened our National Genetic Resources Program,” he adds.
There were lots of questions to work through. “One question that always crops up is: can others use our information without the genebank’s consent, without giving us proper credit? The answer is no, of course,” says Juan Carlos. GRIN-Global offers an online interface – a website where the collection information is made available either within an organization or publicly on the internet. Users can search the database, access the information, and request for germplasm through a “shopping cart facility.” But the genebank alone decides what information is made publicly accessible. In the case of Bolivia, for example, the data can be accessed online here.
A GROWING COMMUNITY
Individual training events such as the one in Bolivia are important, but to reach more genebanks around the globe, the Crop Trust also periodically offers regional training workshops. In fact, there have already been three this year:
- Prague, Czech Republic (February)- Representatives of 18 national genebanks, from Jordan, Tunisia, Azerbaijan, and Portugal, among others, came together to learn more about GRIN-Global. The workshop was led by Martin Reisinger, from USDA.
- Cali, Colombia (April) – Participants from seven Latin American national genebanks, including Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, and Uruguay, attended the workshop. Hosted by CIAT, presented exclusively in Spanish, the workshop focused on case studies exemplifying how other organizations have implemented GRIN-Global.
- Berlin, Germany (June) – the week-long workshop aimed to provide the 11 CGIAR genebanks the capacity to embed barcoding into their existing procedures, taking into consideration the changes required to support printing and scanning of barcodes in their information systems. “With a total of 25 participants, this has been the first opportunity in many years where the genebank documentation and database managers from CGIAR genebanks came together and shared their experiences, expertise and knowledge,” says Matija.
By the end of the summer, Plant Genetic Resources of Canada, and Tunisia’s National Genebank will go live with GRIN-Global. Uruguay’s INIA is in the final testing phase, running a database with passport information on its barley and maize collection. And Belarus, Oman, and Saudi Arabia have recently requested information on GRIN-Global. This adds up to a total of 17 national programs either using or evaluating the software, in addition to CGIAR centres.
The adoption of the GRIN-Global in many genebanks is bringing about the establishment of a community that is now able to share experiences and hopefully guide the development of new features. More importantly, by working together, genebank information managers avoid reinventing the wheel over and over again. They now know that they are not alone. Out there, around the world, more and more genebanks are joining the GRIN-Global community.