The preservation of plant biodiversity is the task of the roughly 1,750 gene banks which are distributed around the world. So far, they store plant samples, and sometimes additional phenotypic or genetic information, of around 7,4 million accessions of plant species in total. It is expected that with the facilitated access to improved, quicker and cheaper sequencing and other omics technologies, the number of well-characterised accessions and the amount of detailed information that needs to be stored along with the biological material will be growing rapidly and continuously. A team of scientists from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben has now looked ahead into the upcoming challenges and possibilities of the future of gene banks by publishing a perspective paper in Nature Genetics.
In the early-to-mid twentieth century, it became increasingly apparent that crop landraces were slowly being replaced by modern crop varieties and were in danger of disappearing. In order to prevent loss of genetic diversity and biodiversity, the first gene banks were established, with the mission to preserve these plant genetic resources. Nowadays, gene banks function as biorepositories and safeguards of plant biodiversity but most importantly as libraries which turn the genetic plant information and plant material into a freely accessible but nonetheless valuable resource. As such, scientists, plant breeders or even anybody from around the world can request and use the data stored within more than 1,750 gene banks around the world for research or plant breeding purposes.
The Gene Bank of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben currently holds one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of crop plants and their wild relatives, collating a total of 151,002 accessions from 2,933 species and 776 genera. The majority of the plant germplasm samples are stored as dry seed at -18°C, whilst accessions which are propagated vegetatively are permanently cultivated in the field (ex situ) or preserved in liquid Nitrogen at -196°C. The online portal of the IPK gene bank allows users to view and sift through the stored plant accessions and their corresponding “passport data,” as well as to request plant material on a non-commercial scale. A new perspective paper authored by Dr. Martin Mascher and colleagues of the IPK now examines the current and upcoming challenges for gene banks but also the opportunities for their further advancement.
The scientists identified three major challenges for gene banks which will need attention. Two are caused by the basic demands of managing tens of thousands of seed lots, namely the tracking of the identity of accessions, and the need to avoid unnecessary duplications within and between gene banks. The third challenge is that of maintaining the genetic integrity of accessions, due to the inherent drawbacks of using ex situ conservation, such as differential survival, drift and genetic erosion in storage and…