Seed Bank Futures

Hassan Machlab, a country manager with ICARDA in Lebanon, stands in the middle of a field with newly planted grains at the ICARDA research station, Dec. 21, 2022. Dalia Khamissy for NPR

Protecting plant species’ futures with seed banks grows greater in importance as time passes, because challenges to the planet multiply. We appreciate updates like this one by Ruth Sherlock and colleagues at National Public Radio (USA):

How ancient seeds from the Fertile Crescent could help save us from climate change

Chickpea grains are tested for various diseases at the ICARDA research station, Dec. 21, 2022. Dalia Khamissy for NPR

TERBOL, Lebanon — Inside a large freezer room at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, tens of thousands of seeds are stored at a constant temperature of minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit. After being threshed and cleaned, the seeds are placed inside small, sealed foil packets and stored on rows of heavy, sliding metal shelves.

Barley grains stored at the ICARDA research station. Dalia Khamissy for NPR

Some of them may hold keys to helping the planet’s food supply adapt to climate change.

The gene bank can hold as many as 120,000 varieties of plants. Many of the seeds come from crops as old as agriculture itself. They’re sown by farmers in the Fertile Crescent region, where cultivation began some 11,000 years ago. Other seeds were deposited by researchers who’ve hiked in the past four decades through forests and mountains in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, searching for wild relatives of wheat, legumes and other crops that are important to the human diet.

The research center, formed in the 1970s, once mostly helped farmers in poorer countries in hot, dry climates. But now it also sends seeds to scientists in Europe, Canada and the United States, helping lead to breakthroughs in improving certain crops’ resilience to the effects of climate change.

“What we are collecting is a sample of the diversity that we have in nature,” says Mariana Yazbek, who manages the gene bank. Yazbek calls the center an “insurance policy” for humanity — it saves seeds in case nuclear war or other catastrophic events should wipe out plant species.

The center replicates the seeds it collects by planting and harvesting them in the fields that surround it in the Bekaa valley. ICARDA then sends a copy to the Global Seed Vault, also known as the “doomsday vault,” in Svalbard, Norway, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

And the seeds that ICARDA — which is funded by governments and international organizations — sends to scientists around the world are used to develop new varieties of crops such as wheat that can tolerate heat and drought.

“These wild relatives of crops have been evolving on Earth for millions of years, and they witnessed so many different climates,” says Yazbek. “The traits that help them adapt and survive in these conditions is stored in their DNA. We have this diversity and it can be a tool to help us face the future.”…

Read the whole article here.

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