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Seed Longevity Initiative: towards a more efficient global system of germplasm conservation

The diversity of most of the world’s major crops is collected, conserved and exchanged in the form of seeds – nature’s unparalleled time capsules of life. Seeds can last a very long time if treated right, but to conserve crop diversity forever, it’s vital to know just how long, and indeed what “right” means.

Earlier this year, representatives from the international CGIAR genebanks launched the Seed Longevity Initiative, a collective effort to push the boundaries of ex situ conservation by maximizing the lifespan of seeds stored in genebanks. The initiative will consolidate historical data recorded on more than 1,000 species in the routine operation of the CGIAR seed collections over the past 50 years, and use it to refine methods used around the world to keep conserved diversity alive.

Many of the agricultural treasures in genebanks were collected decades ago, and some can no longer be found in farmers’ fields. Keeping them accessible for the future is a mission of great importance, requiring skill and precision. The first step involves storing seeds under very specific conditions of low water content and low temperature. Next comes periodic testing of seeds selected at random from each sample (or accession, in the jargon) to make sure they are still alive.

“Typically, if less than 80% of the seeds tested germinate, the accession needs to be regenerated. This means planting the remaining seeds in a field, growing the crop and harvesting fresh seed to start the cycle over,” says Cristian Moreno, Technical Assistant at the Crop Trust.

These routine but essential procedures demand a large share of genebanks’ budgets and staff time. Frequent testing also removes valuable seed from the collection – especially when there is uncertainty about longevity, or when the optimal conditions for storage are not known. The Seed Longevity Initiative aims to close this information gap.

“This initiative brings together the eleven CGIAR genebanks, who will jointly work towards one common interest: to get a better understanding of seed longevity under genebank conditions. The ultimate goal is to increase the efficiency of managing seed collections”, says Moreno.

What does efficiency mean in a genebank?

“Reducing the use of seeds on germination tests and the frequency of field regeneration, while at the same time ensuring high quality of seeds is available and ready for the use of farmers, scientist and scholars”, answers Fiona Hay, Senior Scientist and Genetic Resource Specialist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), who is leading the research.

A work plan and preliminary results were presented back in July, during the first workshop on seed longevity of the International Society for Seed Science (ISSS), which brought seed scientists from more than 40 countries to Wernigerode, Germany. The Crop Trust, which will oversee a year and a half of coordinated study under the Seed Longevity Initiative, organized a side event to formally kick off its undertaking. During the two-day event the CGIAR genebank specialists who are partnering in the initiative brought their different backgrounds, data and approaches to bear on the challenges they face in germination testing.

Seeds don’t come stamped with an expiration date. Information about particular seeds stored under particular conditions can only be gained through years of experiments and experience in genebanks. Fortunately, the CGIAR genebanks have decades of such experience and a wealth of data to delve into.

The Seed Longevity Initiative will use these genebanks’ historical germination test data on more than 1,000 species of cereal, legume, forage, root and other crop species to investigate factors and conditions affecting their seed longevity.

“The overall goal and benefit of the initiative is to contribute towards more cost effective management of international and national genebanks,” says Hay. “Crop diversity conservation is always being perfected, and this study is another step towards ensuring that our genebanks can keep conserving our crop diversity far into the future.”

Moreno adds: “It is very exciting to see the interest and commitment of these genebank specialists who, while managing very diverse crops in different corners of the world, are collectively searching for efficiencies in their routine activities. This initiative is very promising.”

The Seed Longevity Initiative is also a scientific challenge. It will mean bringing together and analyzing historical germination test data from hundreds of species to determine the best conditions for longevity and to understand how seeds differ, both between species and within a species. But once the analysis is complete it will provide a new body of knowledge to streamline genebank efficiency, ensure the security of collections and maintain the highest quality standards of seed conservation and distribution.

By supporting this initiative, the Crop Trust continues its mission to secure the world’s crop diversity in a global system that can operate efficiently far into the future.

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