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Distribution of Seed Germplasm from Plant Gene Resources of Canada (PCN Spring 2015) MAR 25 2015 | Consumers and Producers | Pulse Crop News

This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Pulse Crop News.

Dr. Axel Diederichsen, Plant Gene Resources of Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Three of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Research Centres share responsibility for the active gene bank work in plant genetic resources for food and agriculture in Canada.

The Plant Gene Resources of Canada (PGRC) at the Saskatoon Research Centre in Saskatchewan preserves all seed germplasm, has the central seed storage vaults and maintains the Germplasm Resource Information Network, Canada (GRIN-CA) database that allows national and international clients, as well as the general public to inspect and access the Canadian gene bank holdings. The Canadian Clonal Gene Bank (CCGB) at the Greenhouse and Processing Crops Research Centre, in Harrow, ON, preserves fruit germplasm. The Potato Gene Resources Repository (PGRR) at the Potato Research Centre, in Fredericton, NB, preserves potato germplasm.

The mandate of PGRC in Saskatoon and the other locations is to acquire, preserve and evaluate the genetic diversity of cultivated plants and their wild relatives with emphasis on germplasm of economic importance or potential for Canada.

The germplasm holdings of PGRC and the associated locations currently include 110,444 accessions covering 47 botanical families, 258 genera and 1,036 botanical species. The cereals barley, oat and wheat account for more than 80 per cent of all germplasm holdings. In germplasm of these crops and their wild relatives, PGRC is one of the major gene banks worldwide. It is important for Canada, on a global scale, to improve efficiency in preserving this germplasm for future generations, through international cooperation with other national gene banks and organizations such as the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The main deliverables of any gene bank are: ensuring efficient conservation of genetic diversity to prevent genetic erosion; providing viable and diverse germplasm for germplasm enhancement, research and sustainable development of the agricultural sector; and generating, documenting and providing relevant information associated with the germplasm to support its efficient utilization. Correct botanical identification of the gene bank material to the species level and often to specific groups within the species is important to communicate diversity and PGRC cooperates with taxonomists in order to ensure this.

All germplasm deposited at PGRC, CCGB and PGRR is distributed under a Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) that needs to be signed by any germplasm recipient. This SMTA is part of the implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to which Canada and about 130 other countries are signatories.

All germplasm in the stewardship of the national gene banks of participating countries is part of the so-called Multilateral System of Access and Benefit Sharing. This mechanism allows access to diverse germplasm worldwide, and thereby ensures food security. At the same time, it supports preservation and development of genetic diversity in the on-farm sector and in gene banks worldwide by sharing benefits arising from use of gene bank material.

PGRC at Saskatoon handles the distribution of seed germplasm from the Canadian national gene bank. Germplasm requests are made via the internet-accessible database GRIN-CA or by contacting PGRC staff directly. Approximately 100 seeds per requested gene bank accession are shipped, as the purpose is to provide the gene bank client with a small and representative sample of the genetic diversity of the material. In large-seeded material (for example, beans), the amount of seeds may be lower. The seed samples for shipment are taken from packages in the PGRC seed vault for medium term storage kept at 4°C and a relative air humidity of 20 per cent (Figure 1).

When shipping seeds internationally, PGRC cooperates with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ensure compliancy with phytosanitary requirements. From 2002 to 2013, PGRC shipped annually an average of seed samples of 3,800 gene bank accessions to clients. There was some fluctuation in the annual number of samples shipped (Figure 2). PGRC made an average of 106 shipments per year serving clients in about 24 different countries (Figure 3). Of the 45,673 germplasm accessions shipped by PGRC from 2002 to 2013, 66 per cent were sent to clients within Canada and 15 per cent to clients in the United States. Clients in China were the third largest group (three per cent of shipments) followed by clients from a combined 54 other countries on all continents.

These figures underline how interwoven the exchange of germplasm is internationally. These seed shipments do not include the additional 32,000 accessions that were shipped to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, and partly to the United States Department of Agriculture for long-term storage as security back-up samples in case the original samples preserved at PGRC should ever become compromised due to catastrophic events.

Gene bank clients have different usages for the requested germplasm. Mostly, it is plant pathology or chemical quality researchers that request germplasm that then feeds into plant breeding programs. Pure academic researchers are also a significant clientele of PGRC, and molecular researchers have become increasingly interested in particular germplasm accessions including wild crop relatives and exotic material.

While there is great value in the rare and desired alleles that the germplasm shipped by PGRC contains, it is important to emphasize that not only the genetic material as such, but also the insights obtained from studying such diversity constitute a very relevant contribution to economic sustainability. The potential of the diversity in the PGRC gene bank collection, or any other gene bank, can only have an impact on economic and environmental sustainability if gene bank clients study and utilize the material.

Active work with the PGRC germplasm ensures that new information is generated and new properties are detected that contribute to innovative developments. This is the only way for the germplasm collections to have economic impact. It is not sufficient to rely on the storage aspect of a gene bank. Therefore, PGRC strives very actively to manage parts of the collection, engage cooperators and researchers, and to increase the amount of information available about the stored germplasm.

This happens in close cooperation with research scientists within Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and with external cooperators at universities or the industry sector within Canada and abroad. Recently, civil society organizations have become more engaged in diversity of cultivated plants handled by PGRC and the on-farm sector.

Ensuring access to viable germplasm of genetically diverse material is a complex task. The most challenging step for PGRC is the regeneration of germplasm which is essential for maintaining high seed viability to ensure the genetic integrity of the germplasm, and to have sufficient seed amounts for long-term storage and distribution. The logistics and documentation requirements for the PGRC operation are considerable.

Presently, PGRC works in cooperation with partners in the United States and Mexico on upgrading the Internet accessible website to a system called GRIN-GLOBAL, which will be used by several countries. This system will support access to germplasm and associated information for gene bank clients.

Techniques for communicating and researching diversity have changed drastically in recent decades. PGRC is steadily adapting to these changes and improving the methods for germplasm conservation and characterization. The core function of the gene bank is a long-term commitment as it needs to ensure that knowledge and genetic diversity from the past is preserved. This ensures options for future generations that will also depend on a flexible and adaptable agricultural sector. Genetic diversity is a fundamental requirement for that.

By distributing germplasm, PGRC supports innovation and both economic and environmental resilience within Canada and beyond. Camelina sativa is a recent example of a crop that was nearly exclusively preserved in gene banks and only recently has had a resurgence because innovative scientists could obtain viable and diverse seed material from gene banks. Other gene bank material infrequently used presently in agriculture may have similar potential.

From a Canadian perspective, it is important to understand that most of our agricultural and horticultural crops were introduced from other parts of the world. However, there are also examples of native Canadian species that are relevant and unique genetic resources such as strawberries, native grapes or some grasses and forage legumes. When Canadian taxpayers invest in a national gene bank, they contribute to global efforts in preserving and sharing a cultural heritage to keep options open that in many cases would otherwise be lost.