Assembled over the past 40 plus years from countries around the world, including Australia, the facility’s temperature and humidity-controlled vaults house a diverse collection of bread wheats, durum wheats, triticales and barleys.
It is the largest collection in a network of 11 international genebanks around the world that, in total, hold 600,000 accessions.
CIMMYT wheat germplasm collection head Thomas Payne said the material held in the collection in Mexico was an important resource for plant breeders around the world. He said interest in the world’s botanical resources began in the era of exploration when early explorers sent botanical materials back to their “home countries”. But it was only in the last century that the importance of conserving the materials in a viable state for long term use was recognised. “People started to recognise the fragility of genetic resources and the fact that varieties could, and were, becoming extinct,” he said.
Mr Payne said that prompted a flurry of plant exploration and germplasm collection around the world for much of the 1900s, especially in the period between 1960 - 1980 as the Green Revolution was developing. “But that tailed off in the 1980s because nations became aware of genetic resources within their territories,” he said. “There was a recognition ultimately that was codified through international treaties that stipulated the genetic resources within the boundaries of a country belonged to that country.”
The resulting Convention on Biological Diversity recognised that the genetic resources within the territory of a sovereign nation were the property of that nation. “It was enacted because countries were concerned, for instance, that a big pharmaceutical company would come in and make millions of dollars out of acquiring a medicinal plant,” he said. It was also a significant issue in Australia, as we both use the genetic resources from overseas acquired through exploration eg for new crop and pasture varieties as well as a major unexplored country for plant genetic resources [ see the recent Australian newspaper article of April 2014 on a very promising cancer drug from the north Queensland rain forest].
But Mr Payne said an inadvertent consequence of the convention was it stopped germplasm sharing – in particular, sharing of agricultural crops. “So it was recognised there needed to be another legal instrument to facilitate the exchange of germplasm and the sharing of agricultural crops,” he said. “A wheat variety that has been developed over the last 10,000 years and bred over the last 50 or 100 years has parentage representing many different countries. “So how can you say who is the legal owner of, say, triticum aestivum - bread wheat – which originally evolved 10,000 years ago in what is now the Caspian Sea area of Iran. Is Iran the owner of all bread wheat in the world? “We know many important varieties have come from Australia. Would you say Australia is the owner? “So it was recognised that for crops humanity depends on we can’t assign a single owner.”
In the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture which was ratified in 2004 and came into action in 2007, agricultural germplasms were elevated to a special status that recognised their global significance. “The intent of the treaty is to open up the sharing of agricultural genetic material,” Mr Payne said. “It says the recipient of materials from CIMMYT or any of the genebanks under the treaty are free to do anything they want to with the material. “They are encouraged to share the materials they develop from the materials they receive from CIMMYT. “They are also free to patent or restrict access to the material. But if they choose to restrict access to the materials they have to pay a certain percentage of the income they receive into an international benefit sharing fund.”
Australian scientist and CIMMYT’s Generation Challenge Program transition manager Peter Ninnes said
Australia was one of the first countries to sign up to the international treaty to share genetic resources.
Mr Ninnes has been instrumental in putting in place a structure from which Australia benefits from the genetic diversity of the wheat at CIMMYT. “Australian breeders make their selections in the field in Mexico, the seed goes into quarantine in Australia and is then made available to the Australian breeding teams. That is how Australia gets access to the genetic diversity,” he said. “The intention is that the information that comes out of the assessments in Australia feeds back into the program at CIMMYT.”
These facilities have also been instrumental in research work on seed storage - the ability to develop systems and practices to preserve seed viability and their intrinsic genetic message in the DNA for extended time periods. And to also research those seed and crop lines that cannot be easily stored - the so called recalcitrant seeds [often tropical] that do not respond well in general to cool dry conditions, common for storage of many seeds incl wheat. Recalcitrant seed management is a story in itself!
[ part of this article appeared in the online edition of Qld Country Life April 2014 ]