Treating genes as a resource, conserving plant biodiversity

27 Jan

Image: http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/08/08/seed.bank.paulsmith/     Image: http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/08/08/seed.bank.paulsmith/

The erosion of plant genetic diversity represents an irreversible loss with potentially catastrophic consequences. For this reason, plant genetic diversity is treated today as a resource, and one that requires thoughtful management. This is where genebanks come in:

genebank –
a repository for genetic material (plant or animal), which may be collected, stored, cataloged, and redistributed; increasingly, these repositories are becoming sites of genetics research
sometimes referred to as: gene banks, germplasm repositories, seed banks (though not all genetic material is collected in the form of seed)

Internationally, thousands of genebanks are working to conserve wild and cultivated plant genetic resources – and, by extension, the world’s ecological and agricultural biodiversity. These resources are acquired and preserved as germplasm; the form this germplasm takes is species-dependent.

germplasm –
a set of tissues, organs, or plant parts that can regenerate into whole plants (i.e. seeds, cuttings, budwood) and that carry desired genetic resources (i.e. genes, gene frequencies, genetic combinations)

Factors such as climate change and human population growth represent mounting threats to the natural environment, the global economy, and global food security. In the face of these threats, genetic resource conservation will ensure our ability both to protect the environment and to cultivate plants that meet the needs of a rapidly changing world. As repositories of the world’s biodiversity, plant genebanks safeguard endangered species and provide the germs of life with which to restore devastated ecosystems. As storehouses of intraspecific variation, genebanks provide the genetic wellsprings from which breeders can select for improved yields, nutritive values, stress tolerance, and disease and pest resistance.

In the following TED talks, two experts offer their own passionate arguments in favor of plant genetic resource conservation:


Jonathan Drori explains the significance of plant life and the work of , the world’s largest ex situ plant conservation project.


Cary Fowler, Senior Advisor to the , explains the importance of agricultural biodiversity and the work of the (sometimes referred to endearingly as the “doomsday vault”).

– Jacqueline Maasch, ’15

Jacqueline is an anthropology major, environmental science & policy minor, and sustainable food concentrator. She hopes to work at a genebank at some point in the future. This post is based on research done in Horticulture (BIO 122) in spring 2013.

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