USDA Genetic Resource Database Expands Opportunities to Conserve Global Biodiversity

By Laura Reynolds

Genetic diversity, from microorganisms to large mammals, is being lost at a rapid rate—between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural rate, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. To combat this dangerous biodiversity loss, the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is updating and expanding its genetic resource database software, known as the Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). Recognized as the most comprehensive and up-to-date gene bank in the world, GRIN is expanding to make its database accessible to anyone in the world, free of charge. Broadening access to genetic resources is a major step in biodiversity conservation, a pressing issue that affects food production, ecosystem health, and other necessities of life on Earth.

Biodiversity, or the genetic variety of all life on Earth, is a key asset to global environmental health. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The USDA partnered with the Global Crop Diversity Trust and Bioversity International to update and expand the GRIN gene bank. Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group member, Dr. Cary Fowler is currently the Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and has worked as Senior Advisor to the Director General of Bioversity International. In this post, Dr. Fowler discusses how GRIN is changing the way the world views genetic diversity.

What are some of the current threats to plant, animal, and other types of genetic resources around the world?

There are two broad threats to genetic resource conservation. The first is the constellation of threats to gene banks around the world. A lot of diversity is conserved in the 1,750 gene banks or seed banks that exist around the world. Because genetic diversity consists of actual seeds or germplasm, these resources are vulnerable to any number of disruptions in gene bank operations. For example, there have been floods that have struck seed banks in Thailand, there was a fire last week in a seed bank in the Philippines, civil strife and revolution have disrupted gene conservation in Egypt, and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan caused those countries’ gene banks to be destroyed entirely.

Out in the world, on farms and in fields, there are also serious threats. These have to do with development, like the industrialization of the food and agricultural system. Farmers trying to increase their production often replace old seed varieties with new varieties that are more productive, longer-lasting, or cheaper. These farmers and the seed suppliers they buy from, however, often don’t conserve the old, less-popular seed varieties, and so that small aspect of global biodiversity is lost. While the loss of one seed variety may not seem like much, these losses and replacements are happening every day and all over the world, combining to create a major problem in biodiversity.

With global developments like climate change, we can expect older seed varieties to face even more challenges, as farmers are prompted to seek new, more productive varieties that are adapted to new climate patterns. Without official protection in gene banks, old or heirloom seeds and animal resources might be pushed aside in the name of profit or efficiency. But many older varieties contain natural resistance to pests, diseases, and extreme climate events like drought. And if farmers come to rely on new seeds without these characteristics, global food production will face some serious challenges.

How does safeguarding biodiversity contribute to global development?

Without genetic diversity, we’re really not going to have global development. Genetic diversity is the key natural resource that underpins global economies around the world, not to mention the global food system. Our domesticated species, both plant and animal, simply must evolve to keep pace with rapid global development. This means keeping up with new pests and diseases, economic demands, and the agricultural demands of feeding a growing world population, and the solution to all of these challenges rests in preserving biodiversity. Without the work of seed banks and genetic resource conservation, the crops and animal breeds that are widely used today are just waiting for new pests and other threats to come along. They are like sitting ducks.

For the environment in general, plant diversity contributes to healthy global development because it removes a lot of the need for humans to tamper with the natural environment. Anytime we have a crop in the field that is not naturally resistant to pests or diseases that exist in the surrounding environment, we have to essentially take on nature’s work. We pour chemicals or pesticides on that crop to make it suitable to its surroundings, which is obviously not good for the environment, and has shown to have disastrous effects on human and ecosystem health. It is not an exaggeration to say biodiversity is the foundation for global development and keeping the world functioning.

What can the public do to halt the loss of genetic resources?

Genetic conservation is actually an issue that can be solved, which is rare in this era of large-scale crisis. There are a lot of threats facing Earth today that are so daunting in scale and complexity that even with all the funding and intelligence in the world, we still can’t easily solve them. Global climate change is one such problem.

But with the issue of genetic resource conservation, we know what to do. With technology that already exists, we know how to conserve genetic diversity for future generations, and we can do it cheaply, safely, and effectively. So that is one major advantage of biodiversity conservation: that it is within our reach.

As consumers and the general public, we need to be at least as passionate and concerned about conserving this diversity as we are with any other problem—conserving a rare but charismatic species, for instance, or building another military plant. There is a certain amount of psychology involved in making people concerned about biodiversity—it’s not as eye-catching or emotional as other conservation issues out there, like saving panda bears or whales (not that there’s anything wrong with saving those species). But if we fail to conserve crops like wheat and rice, some of the other species that we are more popularly concerned with are going to be in trouble. Instead of focusing on world hunger or wildlife conservation, we’ll have to spend time and money fixing other problems that arise as a result of biodiversity loss, like building resistance to new pests and diseases. It will derail a lot of other good, necessary work.

What makes GRIN one of the leading genetic resource-conservation programs in the world?

The United States has long had the best software system for managing its gene banks. Software serves as the interface between conservation and utilization. Unlike many conservation programs, conservation of crop diversity is meant for utilization—planting seeds in fields, or reintroducing an animal into its native habitat. So the USDA’s software allows those people who are working to restore biodiversity, such as a wheat or rice breeder, to actually find what he or she needs. For example, with a global collection of 200,000 different varieties of rice, it is an overwhelming task for a rice breeder to determine the specific variety that fits the characteristics he or she is looking for. An organized system saves time and money, and in this field, time is money because it takes a long time to grow a new variety of crop. In the old version of the USDA genetic resource database, researchers wanting to search the database needed a license from the software company. Just acquiring this license would cost more than the annual operating budget of most seed banks in developing countries, however, making it impossible for them to do their work.

Now, GRIN is based on an open-source system, and is being translated into a number of different languages, making it much more accessible to everyone involved in genetic resource conservation. The USDA database is working to standardize databases around the world, so that all the information in smaller gene banks will eventually be searchable through one portal on the internet. A breeder or researcher could then go to this one portal and get information from Fort Collins, Colorado, from a research institute in Mexico, and from another organization in the Philippines, so the breeder can see the entire range of seeds available around the world for a specific crop.

How does GRIN plan to share its findings with other countries, including on-the-ground actors working to protect genetic resources?

There are approximately 1,750 gene banks around the world, so sharing GRIN’s database with these gene banks is creating great opportunities for collaboration and advancement. In addition, the database is being adopted by a number of non-government organizations, like Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. If you have a really good system that gives you information on lots and lots of characteristics and traits, and it is online and easy to use, all of a sudden the data in the gene banks around the world that used to be practically inaccessible other than to professionals, is opened up to anyone who cares to explore it. That is very important because there are not enough genetic researchers in the world to preserve every crop or animal species, so farmers and naturalists are vital in conserving rare species native to their area. To face the challenges associated with climate change, we need to be promoting on-the-ground experimentation by farmers, as well as research done by genetic resource scientists.

Laura Reynolds is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

To read more about the benefits of biodiversity see: Innovation of the Week: Banking Today to Conserve Plants for the Future and African Biodiversity Network: Sowing Seeds for Grassroots Resilience.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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