Collecting, conserving and using agricultural biodiversity

Genetic Resources
The ICARDA gene bank contains 157,000 samples of cereals, legumes, forage and rangeland species.

Non-tropical dryland agro-biodiversity supports the livelihoods of rural communities living under harsh conditions. It is critical to global food security amid the challenges presented by climate change, diminishing natural resources, and a rapidly growing population.

ICARDA’s gene bank was established in 1985 in Tel Hadiya, Syria. It contains 157,000 samples of major winter cereals, food legumes, forage and rangeland species drawn from four major Vavilovian centers of plant diversity – including the ‘Fertile Crescent’ in Western Asia, the Abyssinian highlands in Ethiopia, and the Nile Valley, where the earliest known crop domestication practices were first recorded. Many plants are now extinct or endangered in their natural habitats.

ICARDA’s collection of unique genetic materials rank among the most important worldwide. These collections are rich in landraces and wild relative species. More than 85 percent of the accessions are characterized and 75 percent are georeferenced. All accessions are safely duplicated in reliable gene banks around the world and around 75 percent are duplicated at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

ICARDA’s gene bank

  • Enriches existing collections with novel diversity using gap analysis.
  • Applies best practices for regeneration, characterization, ex situ conservation, documentation and distribution of seed and rhizobium genetic resources.
  • Develops approaches for efficient mining of genetic resources using the ‘FIGS’ – or Focused Identification of Germplasm Strategy – approach. 
  • Contributes to the use of genetic resources, mainly through strengthening pre-breeding efforts.
  • Provides training and technical support on all aspects related to conservation and sustainable use of dryland agro-biodiversity, and related policies and legislation.
  • Contributes to building a global system for the conservation of genetic resources, and enhances regional networking.

DataBases

  • Genesys: a global portal for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Germplasm accessions from gene banks around the world can be found and ordered here.

Core gene bank activities

1. Collection and acquisition

In collaboration with its national and international partners, ICARDA’s Genetic Resources Unit has conducted over 230 collecting missions in 41 countries. The collecting missions are based on gap analyses to cover the distribution areas of different species, or they target specific adaptive traits to add novel diversity.

ICARDA also receives accessions from other gene banks and donors around the world. It receives genetic stocks and elite breeding germplasm with known valuable traits from breeders and researchers. All of these acquisitions are done using the FAO Germplasm Acquisition Agreement or Standard Material Transfer Agreement.

2. Regeneration and characterization

Good quality seeds – with high viability and no quarantine diseases – have to be produced prior to conservation. The accessions are planted in fields, green houses, or isolation cages using the best techniques to ensure the conservation of genetic integrity.

During regeneration, the accessions are characterized using major descriptors and, in some cases, molecular techniques. Since 2015, ICARDA has retrieved duplicated accessions from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault for intensive regeneration and characterization programs. On average, up to 33,000 accessions are regenerated and characterized annually, targeting the reconstitution of active and base collections.

3. Storage and conservation

Once threshed, cleaned, and fumigated seeds are transported from fields to gene bank facilities, where they spend 4-6 weeks in drying rooms (15 °C and 15 percent humidity) before being processed and conserved. They are also subject to viability and seed health testing.

The seeds are stored under two types of conditions. For long-term storage (base collection), the seeds are kept in vacuum-sealed aluminum-foil bags at -20 °C. For medium-term storage (active collection), the seeds are put in tightly closed plastic jars and kept at -4 °C and a relative humidity of less than 25 percent. They are distributed to seed requesters. Two additional samples are packed in air-vacuumed aluminum foils and sent for long-term conservation as safety duplicates, one to reliable gene banks, and the other to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

4. Distribution

One of the key tasks of ICARDA's gene bank is to respond to requests for accessions to ensure continuum between the conservation and utilization of genetic resources. In the past, ICARDA distributed 20,000 samples every year. Since 2010, ICARDA has adopted the Focused Identification of Germplasm Strategy (FIGS) approach to better respond to requests, allowing for the more efficient mining of gene bank holdings using fewer accessions.

FIGS is based on the relationship between the environmental layers and the trait sought. Using sophisticated models and algorithms, it identifies accessions that are most likely to contain traits that can solve a particular breeding challenge, such as tolerance to heat or resistance to a specific disease.

5. Documentation

All information gathered from the acquisition, regeneration, characterization, storage, and distribution is documented in the ICARDA gene bank database. This information is available through the on-line version of the database and through the global platform GENESYS.

6. Training and promotion

The gene bank provides training to young scientists involved in genetic resources conservation. It organizes at least one course every year, covering topics such as best practices for ex situ conservation, documentation, information management, policy and legislation, sustainability, and the use of GIS and remote-sensing tools to assess agro-biodiversity and land use.

ICARDA actively works to raise public awareness about the importance of conserving and using genetic resources. Researchers attend international conferences to discuss the need for polices and legislation to improve global food security.

Impact Stories