Rescuing wheat seed collections from conflict

With Syria torn apart by civil war, a team of scientists in Mexico and Morocco are rushing to save a vital sample of wheat’s ancient and massive genetic diversity, sealed in seed collections of an international research center formerly based in Aleppo, but forced to leave during 2012-13.

Researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) began restoring and genetically characterizing more than 30,000 unique seed collections of wheat from the ICARDA Syrian genebank.

Photo: Carolina Sansolini/CIMMYT

“With war raging in Syria, this project is incredibly important,” said Carolina Sansaloni, genotyping and DNA sequencing specialist at CIMMYT. “It would be amazing if we could be just a small part of reintroducing varieties that have been lost in war-torn regions.”

The team as part of the Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) project at CIMMYT has been sequencing DNA from 2,000 seed samples a week, as well as deriving molecular markers for breeder- and farmer-valued traits, such as disease resistance, drought or heat tolerance and qualities that contribute to higher yields and grain quality. They are using a high-end DNA sequencing system located at the Genetic Analysis Service for Agriculture (SAGA), a partnership between CIMMYT and Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) and with the support of a private company from Australia, Diversity Arrays Technology (DArT).

The sequencer at SAGA can read 1,600 samples of seed at once and develops more data than ever before. The HiSeq 2500 boils down data and shows the information at a “sequence level”, for example, height variations among wheat varieties. (Photos: Carolina Sansolini/CIMMYT)

According to Sansaloni, the collections, which have been untouched for nearly twenty years, could hold the key for future breeding to feed an expanding world population.

Safeguarding and preserving genetic diversity is crucial as population rises and man-made and natural disasters, climate change and diseases continue to plague farmers’ fields.

SeeD recently released multiple studies highlighting the potential of untapped genetic material, safeguarded in genebanks, to benefit breeding programs worldwide by adding in varieties that can adapt to drought and rising temperatures.

A study by a team of researchers from CIMMYT, ICARDA and the Global Crop Diversity Trust uncovered large, undiscovered sources of wheat genetic diversity by reviewing the molecular diversity of 1,423 spring bread wheat accessions that represent major global production environments, using genotyping-by-sequencing, a rapid and cost-effective approach that allows for an in-depth, reliable estimate of genetic diversity.

The results of the study suggested that many of the tested landraces and synthetics have untapped, useful genetic variation that could be used to improve modern wheat varieties. They discovered thousands of new DNA marker variations in landraces known to be adapted to drought and heat, opening the potential to enrich elite breeding lines with novel alleles for drought and heat tolerance. This new genetic diversity will help bread wheat breeding programs around the world to create new varieties to feed the world’s growing population in a changing environment.

Also in 2015, researchers at SeeD genetically characterized a collection of 8,400 centuries-old Mexican wheat landraces adapted to varied and sometimes extreme conditions, offering potential genes to combat wheat’s climate-vulnerability. Reported in Nature Scientific Reports, the study details critical genetic information about Mexican landraces for use in breeding to boost global wheat production.

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