April 9, 2012

Seed collection and plant genetic diversity, 1900–1979

"Frank Meyer in Chinese Turkestan, ca. 1910," Meyer was an early plant explorer, and Meyer lemons are named after him. Photo from the National Archives

Seed banks, such as the so-called "Doomsday Seed Vault" have been in the news recently, and I think will play a big role in crop adaptation to climate change. As part of the Embryo Project at ASU, I've been researching the history of seed banks this is Part I: from 1990–1979. See my new post for Part II: Seed Banks, 1979–1994.

Although scientists lacked formal theories about genetics until the early 1900s, agriculturalists have long relied on genetic diversity to breed new crops. In the early 1900s, scientists began to recognize the importance of plant genetic diversity for agriculture. Scientists realized that crops could be systematically bred with their wild relatives to incorporate specific genetic traits or produce hybrids. In 1967, plant scientists led an international movement for conservation of plant genetic resources through the Food and Agricultural Organization, and later the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. Necessary to the conservation of plant genetic resources are the collection and storage of plant germplasm—the genetic material required to propagate a plant—usually in the form of a seed.

Throughout history, farmers, scientists, explorers, botanists, and agriculturalists collected exotic plants and tested the seeds in new environments, hoping to find new agriculturally important crops. Agricultural experimenters and collectors such as Thomas Jefferson stored germplasm in fields, greenhouses, and botanical gardens. The US government became involved in 1819 the US Patent Office and Navy began the official collection of germplasm from foreign consuls. This continued until the Civil War and the formation of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1862. The USDA distributed foreign seeds to farmers and agricultural experiment stations for testing, and created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, located in Beltsville, Maryland, in 1898.

The rise of genetic theories and the professionalization of plant breeding in the early 20th century contributed to early understandings of plant genetic diversity. Scientists such as Liberty Hyde Bailey, Rowland Harry Biffen, Hugo de Vries, and William Bateson popularized Darwinian and Mendelian concepts of natural selection and genetic laws, and their application to plant breeding. Based on de Vries’ mutation theory, scientists realized the importance of genetic variation to plant breeding. Bailey in particular strove to break the conceptual divide between crops in the field and plants in the wild, a theme that would influence plant breeding and seed storage throughout the century.

Governments in the US, Europe, the Soviet Union, Australia, and New Zealand supported early efforts at plant germplasm collection. In the early 1900s, the US commissioned famous plant explorer Frank N. Meyer, who the Meyer lemon is named after, to collect plant germplasm from exotic locations in Asia, Russia, and Europe. A Soviet botanist and plant explorer, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887–1943), is considered a founder of theories of plant diversity, origin, and evolution. Vavilov studied plant genetics under Biffen and later Bateson in England. In the 1920s and 1930s, Vavilov raised awareness of the loss of plant genetic diversity due to the dominance of a small number of genetically similar crops, an argument that would form the basis of the movement for the conservation of plant genetic resources.

Vavilov proposed the influential theory of Centers of Origin, which were nine areas of the world where food crops originated from, such as the potato’s origin in Latin America. These areas were thought to contain the most diverse wild relatives of the crops due to evolution and genetic variation. Despite repression of Vavilov’s Darwinian ideas under Soviet Lysenckoism and Stalin, his theories spread throughout the world. Vavilov’s work inspired the botanists, plant breeders, and explorers who led the movement for conservation of plant genetic resources, including Erna Bennett (1925–2012), Otto H. Frankel (1900–1998), Jack R. Harlan (1917–1998), and John G. Hawkes (1915–2007) . The discovery of Centers of Origin increased the importance of crop wild relatives for plant germplasm collection and plant breeding. His Centers of Origin theory is now thought of as centers of diversity, because there is not always a clear genetic origin of plant varieties.

Beginning a movement for international development of seed collections, the Rockefeller Foundation [contributedTo] funded an effort to collect plant germplasm in Mexico in the 1940s. The Rockefeller Foundation launched the Mexican Agricultural Project (MAP) in 1943, which many consider the start of the Green Revolution. The MAP signaled the beginning of an era of systematic collection, evaluation, and storage of plant germplasm, in this case, maize, wheat, and potato germplasm. The MAP preceded formation of the first long-term seed storage facility, the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1958. Prior to existing germplasm collections only provided short-term storage. After World War II, many countries, including India, Brazil, and Japan, had established “seed banks” for long-term storage of plant germplasm.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), an international organization located in Rome, Italy, became concerned about the loss of plant genetic diversity in the 1960s. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, concerns over the loss of plant genetic resources, which include everything from wild to domesticated relatives of food crops, became a high priority for the FAO. The FAO acted as a “clearing house” for plant exploration since 1948 by cataloging plant varieties and participating plant breeders and countries. The FAO also oversaw plant germplasm collections in countries around the world. In 1967 the FAO created a department of Crop Ecology and Genetic Resources, led by Bennett and R. J. Pichel.

In 1967 the Food and Agricultural Organization and International Biological Programme, of England, organized the 1967 Technical Conference on the Exploration, Utilization and Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources in Rome, Italy. This was a turning point in the movement for conservation of plant diversity. The conference popularized the term “genetic resources” and established a set of standards and plans for storage of plant genetic material outside of natural habitats and in seed banks. Two key scientists involved in the conferences, Bennett and Frankel, differed over this decision. Bennett advocated for farmer’s participation through conservation in the field, while Frankel advocated the seed banking approach. Frankel and the FAO favored the seed banking approach to conservation because it allowed plant breeders to selectively draw from stored genetic material.

Participants at the 1967 FAO conference also coined the term “genetic erosion,” meaning the loss of plant genetic diversity due to agricultural expansion. Genetic erosion became a pressing international concern after a major corn blight in 1970 in the US and the spread of coffee rust in Brazil. Echoing Vavilov, scientists highlighted the downfalls of a genetically homogenous crop population. In 1972 the US National Research Council authored an influential report, Genetic Vulnerability of Major Crops, stating a similar case.

The FAO advocated long-term conservation as a solution to genetic erosion. Yet the FAO was not a research organization, and lacked flexible funding and the ability to enact conservation methods. The FAO could not overlook the rise of international agricultural research centers in the 1960s, such as the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, the Philippines. These international agricultural research centers formally joined in 1971 as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), under direction of the World Bank. The CGIAR proved fertile ground for the FAO’s goal of long-term germplasm conservation.

The FAO’s Panel of Experts approached the CGIAR in 1971 with the idea of integrating conservation of plant genetic resources into their existing agenda of international agricultural research. A meeting in 1972 between the CGIAR and FAO in Beltsville, Maryland, began talks about a global system for plant genetic conservation. The CGIAR relied on plant genetic resources for plant breeding, and already had some collections of germplasm. In 1974 the CGIAR and FAO formed the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR).

Under the direction of the FAO’s Pichel, the IBPGR, based in Rome, Italy, coordinated the collection, experimentation, and information dissemination of plant genetic conservation projects around the world. The IBPGR partnered with the CGIAR’s other international centers and national agricultural research centers to fund and create seed banks. These seed banks had multiple goals: long-term conservation, medium-term experimentation and propagation of germplasm for agricultural research, and short-term field experiments leading to new crop varieties.

In 1975, only eight seed banks existed in the world. This number would drastically increase under direction of the CGIAR and FAO, but not without controversy both within and outside of the IBPGR. The IBPRG changed leadership in 1979, when Trevor Williams replaced R. J. Pichel as executive secretary of the IBPGR. Publication of Pat Roy Mooney’s Seeds of the Earth: Private or Public Resource? sparked public controversy over access to seed banks.


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