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ICARDA Receives Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize for Ensuring Safekeeping of its Genebank Collection

Mar 19,2015

Dr. Mahmoud Solh, pictured with Dr. Peter Harry Carstensen, Chairman of Gregor Mendel Foundation (Left), and Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, State Secretary of German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (Right)

Despite the on-going conflict in Syria over the past three years, ICARDA's Genetic Resources Section (GRS) team in Aleppo has been meticulously transporting plant genetic material to the Svalbard Seed Valut in Norway. Most of these germplasm collections are unique landraces and wild relatives of cereals and legumes, collected over the past four decades from dryland regions worldwide, including: the 'Fertile Crescent' in Western Asia, the Abyssinian highlands of Ethiopia, the Mediterranean, and Central Asia and the Caucasus.  

In recognition of this feat, Dr. Mahmoud Solh, on behalf of ICARDA and the GRS Team, recently received the prestigious Gregor mendel Innovation Proze in Berlin, one of the world's top honors for outstanding contributions to plant breeding.   

More than 80 percent of the globally unique collection of crop genetic resources stored at ICARDA’s genebank in Syria is now safely duplicated at this Arctic facility. The Svalbard seed vault has so far received a total of 116,484 plant genetic materials from ICARDA.

Safeguarding these genetic materials is a critical mission for ICARDA, says Dr. Solh. “We are entrusted with the genetic wealth from some 128 countries – a resource we cannot afford to lose as it ensures long-term public welfare.” Dr Solh confirmed that almost all the germaplasm collections are now saved outside Syria. The hosts include Norway, Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, CIMMYT, ICRISAT, VIR-Russia, USDA, and India. 

ICARDA is especially grateful to Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and Grains Research and Development Corporation, Global Crop Diversity, and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development for supporting its genetic resources and genebank activities.

ICARDA’s genebank stores perhaps the world’s biggest collection of barley, faba bean and lentil crops in the world, along with ancient varieties of durum and bread wheat.  It holds about 150,000 accessions. “This is a uniquely rich resource for agricultural scientists seeking genes that can be used in international and national breeding programs to develop crop varieties tolerant to climate change, diseases, pests and harsh weather conditions,” says Dr. Ahmed Amri, the crop scientist heading the Genetic Resources Unit at ICARDA. It is an invaluable treasure of seeds from indigenous crops in the world’s dry areas, he explains.

Ensuring that seeds are stored in the correct location in the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard among some 20 million seeds from around the world was a demanding task, informs Dr. Ali Shehadeh, the lead scientist supervising the distribution effort. Proper cataloguing was imperative. Through sustained team efforts they ensured the duplication and transfer of most of ICARDA’s plant genetic resources.

Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and ICARDA’s partner in the effort, commended the relentless efforts of ICARDA’s management and genebank staff in Syria in conserving this crop biodiversity. “The loss of seed collections at times of conflict is an unfortunate fall out. We need to safeguard as much as possible of this diversity because any one of these varieties might have the trait we need to adapt to future known and unknown challenges”.

The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, managed jointly by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen) and the Government of Norway, is serving as an insurance plan for countries and the world in case of a catastrophic wipe out of crops.