Rescuing the seeds of Aleppo

Nature finds hope for the future in war-torn Syria, where a seed-bank dedicated to preserve our ancient plants (which could save our crops from climate change) is being rebuilt in Lebanon and Morocco:

Seed banks function as bank accounts for plant genes. Collectors deposit seeds, which can later be ‘withdrawn’ to replenish crops lost in conflict or disaster, to breed new traits into crops — such as pest or heat resistance — and to research the evolution of plants over the ages.

ICARDA’s collection, previously held entirely at the bank in Aleppo, is especially valuable because it aims to collect seeds from the world’s dry regions. That includes the Fertile Crescent, which spans parts of North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus and west Asia, and is thought of as the birthplace of modern agriculture. The collection contains many wild relatives of modern crops such as wheat, barley, lentils and grass pea.

The centre provides researchers and breeders with an average of about 20,000 samples each year, says Amri, with most material going to the United States, to institutions in the nation’s breadbasket such as Kansas State University and North Dakota State University. Many wild varieties from arid regions have traits that may help crops to meet the challenges posed by climate change, including resistance to drought, heat and pests, and adaptations to salinity.

Almost all of the seeds in ICARDA’s bank have previously been duplicated and sent to banks elsewhere, mainly to the super-secure Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway — a.k.a. the ‘doomsday vault’ — which was set up to provide back-up copies of seeds held in banks worldwide. But this trove is not easily available to scientists. By contrast, ICARDA’s collection is mainly meant to be ‘active’: in other words, available to farmers, researchers and breeders.

In 2015, ICARDA made its first withdrawal of seeds from the Svalbard bank and is now using them to build up stocks in Terbol [Lebanon] and Rabat [Morocco]. It will return the stocks to Svalbard and withdraw several more batches to reconstruct the entire Aleppo collection.

Duplicating the collection in more-accessible gene banks is vital, says Mogens Hovmøller, a plant pathologist at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, who also leads the Global Rust Reference Center. That project was co-founded by ICARDA and is part of an effort to minimize the world’s vulnerability to devastating wheat-rust diseases.

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