The International Potato Center (CIP) recently joined 34 other organizations across the globe in depositing more than 60,000 seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a biodiversity bunker in a mountainside of an Arctic island in Norway. That mass deposit of seeds of an array of crops helped raise the number of samples stored in Svalbard to more than one million, but for the CIP gene bank, it was just the latest such delivery in an ongoing effort to back up its extensive collections of potato, sweet potato, Andean roots and tubers, and the wild relatives of those crops.
“This is an insurance policy for humanity’s future, ensuring that these seeds exist somewhere, in case something goes wrong here or in the world,” said Noelle Anglin, head of the CIP gene bank and leader of CIP’s biodiversity for the future program. She noted that Lima, Peru, where the CIP gene bank is located, has been wrecked by earthquakes over the years, with parts of the city also flooded in 2017.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides permanent backup storage, at -18°C, for seeds from the world’s gene banks. NordGen – the organization that manages the seed vault in coordination with the Crop Trust and Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food – uses a “black box” system, which means only depositors can touch or withdraw their seeds. Whereas gene banks routinely share their accessions with other organizations, the seed vault is strictly for storage.
Gene banks safeguard a vast sampling of the world’s crop biodiversity, much of which is threatened by environmental destruction, extreme weather, and the global trend of farmers shifting from traditional varieties to modern ones. Yet some ancient varieties and their wild relatives have characteristics that breeders can use to develop the resilient varieties that farmers will need to cope with future climates, which makes gene banks increasingly important.
CIP’s recent deposit of 236 seed samples of sweet potato and wild relatives of several crops were added to the 9,206 seed samples that CIP had previously sent to Svalbard. However, Svalbard is just one of several places where the CIP gene bank backs up its collections.
Founded in 1971, the CIP gene bank works to conserve and use roots and tuber genetic diversity for humanity. As of 2017, it houses more than 21,700 samples and preserves most of its collections as in-vitro plantlets.
Because potatoes are “clonal” crops, for which farmers plant tubers or vine cuttings that are genetically identical to the mother plant, the CIP gene bank preserves them in-vitro, stored in test tubes in refrigerated chambers. They can be multiplied by taking tissue cuttings and letting them grow into plants, from which subsequent cuttings can be taken—a process that starts in a lab and ends in farmers’ fields. And because in vitro plantlets only survive a year or two in storage, technicians regularly need to take cuttings to produce new plants for storage and sharing.
The CIP gene bank conserves more than 4,800 potato accessions—from rare Andean native potatoes to internationally grown varieties—and more than 5,500 sweet potato accessions. However, the Svalbard facility only stores seeds, so CIP can back up only a portion of its collections there, primarily wild relatives of potato and sweet potato.
CIP backs up its in-vitro potato collection with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), and its in-vitro sweet potato collection at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia.
CIP has also backed up 3,277 potato accessions using cryopreservation, in which plant tissue is stored in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196°C. Cryopreservation is a cost-effective long-term option for safeguarding potato biodiversity, but CIP’s cryopreserved collection is currently held only in its Lima gene bank. Anglin is thus exploring options for backing it up elsewhere.
“The CIP gene bank’s combination of seeds, in vitro and cryopreservation makes managing and backing up that biodiversity a labor-intensive process,” she said. “However, it is extremely important, because if we lost this material, I estimate that we would be unable to replace 70% of the collection, if we didn’t have a safety backup. This is because many things have disappeared from where they were originally collected, and it is now difficult to get official permission for collecting biodiversity in the field. We have to do everything we can to ensure that our collections will be available for future generations. It is our responsibility to safeguard this resource, to contribute to the greater global good of humanity,” Anglin added.