Sight Magazine – Wow! : In Colombia, a seed bank reveals genetic secrets in the fight against climate change


Cali, Colombia
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Colombian agronomist Javier Gereda makes a proud gesture towards the hardy bean plant and bright green seedlings he has spent the last seven years bringing back from agricultural oblivion.

“This is my son and his siblings,” he said with a smile, standing next to a row of high-tech refrigerators at a world-renowned seed bank that uses genetics to help farmers adapt to climate change and withstand shocks. global food systems.

“It’s the only species of this bean that exists outside of its original habitat in Costa Rica, where it disappeared years ago,” Gereda said. “We are the only source of extinct species like this.”

Rows of seed samples stored in the old building of The Future Seeds gene bank, Cali, Colombia, on July 23. PHOTO: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney

The seed from which Gereda grew her plants was stored in the world’s largest genetic library for beans, cassava and tropical forages, collected and curated since the 1970s, according to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. .

Located in the middle of sugarcane fields near the city of Cali, in southwestern Colombia, the Future Seeds gene bank is managed by the CGIAR’s Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

“It’s insurance for the future”

– scientist Joe Tohme

Growing demand for food due to a growing population and declining agricultural production caused by land degradation and hotter, more extreme weather conditions means researchers need to breed more resilient crop varieties, experts say.

Stored in rows of steel shelves lined with glass test tubes and dried in airtight bags in a huge refrigerator refrigerated at minus 20 degrees Celsius, the bank houses a collection of 67,000 samples.

“It’s insurance for the future,” scientist Joe Tohme, a geneticist who leads the Alliance’s research on crops for nutrition and health, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A new facility housing the collection has so far received approximately $17.2 million in funding, including from the Colombian government, and an additional $17 million donation from the Bezos Earth Fund, established by Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos.

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The new building of the Future Seeds Genebank, Cali, Colombia, on July 23. PHOTO: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney

The world used to grow over 6,000 different plants, but around 75% of crop diversity has been lost over the past century and UN experts say we now get around 40% of our calories from three main crops: corn, wheat and rice.

This means that food supplies are vulnerable if climate change or war causes harvests to fail. The conflict in Ukraine has exposed the fragility of food supply chains, which, when interrupted, can drive up prices and fuel hunger.

But the seed bank holds genetic secrets that could help farmers adapt to rising temperatures and drier or wetter conditions by planting hardier, nutritious and high-yielding crops as a way to stave off hunger. and malnutrition.

One in nine people do not have enough food today, as the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050.

As biodiversity loss increases globally due to urban development, population growth and deforestation, it is vital to preserve plant species to prevent them from disappearing forever, experts say.

Rising temperatures have also brought unexpected new pests and diseases that are ravaging crops.

“The biggest threat to food security is climate change. It’s an existential threat,” Tohme said.

“[The seed bank] can enable us to address short- and long-term issues and concerns such as climate change, malnutrition and future threats,” he added.

In the seed bank’s laboratories, researchers examine microscopes to prepare each seed for storage or research, selecting the optimal seeds and discarding any that are damaged.

“In the gene pool, we are looking for special traits, seeds that can survive hot temperatures and/or low or high water. We select the best of the best,” said Luis Guillermo Santos, bean researcher at CIAT. .

The bank provides free seed samples to researchers and farmers – often agricultural cooperatives looking to plant seeds once used by their ancestors, or more resistant varieties.

Approximately 100 email requests from researchers and farmers are received each year for bean samples held in the collection.

“Some farmers know the seeds they want, the same as their grandfathers and those before them. Or we can suggest which seeds to use based on their local conditions,” Santos said, adding that the bank distributed more than 500,000 seed samples in 142 countries. around the world since 1973.

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Over the decades, scientists using seeds from the genebank have also developed more hardy and nutritious seeds, which is vital because the loss of Earth’s genetic diversity means crops are less resistant to diseases, species invasive species, pests, habitat loss and climate change, said CIAT researcher Norma Manrique.

“The bank is a way to protect biodiversity and conserve the biodiversity of crops that have already been lost in their original habitat,” Manrique said.

“These seeds are the solution,” she said. “It’s a treasure. You can’t get it back. It’s unique.”

In a success story, seeds harvested decades ago from the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador and Colombia were used to produce a variety of cassava resistant to brown streak, a disease prevalent in parts of Africa which reduces the harvests of the staple food.

In another, bean varieties with higher levels of zinc and iron were identified, helping to fight malnutrition and hunger, Tohme said.

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A researcher cleans seedlings in the old building of The Future Seeds gene bank, Cali, Colombia, on July 23. PHOTO: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney

Mining and extracting information from seeds involves DNA extraction and gene sequencing – a process that deciphers and translates the genetic code of plants.

In the new building of the Future Seeds gene bank which will be fully operational in December, scientists are taking genomics – the study of genetic material – and integrating it with big data technology to develop more resistant crops.

The use of artificial intelligence helps scientists speed up crop analysis, which speeds up the breeding of new plant varieties that can withstand extreme conditions.

“It’s a library that needs translation, and new technologies, like AI, to mine the data are used,” Tohme said.

Biologist Monica Carvajal, who runs digital bank Future Seeds, said it was “like having a digital passport…a bank of knowledge to access biodiversity through the use of data”.

“The secret that hides in the seeds is to be discovered. You seek secrets according to your needs,” she added.

The gene bank also aims to train a new generation of scientists by forging new research partnerships with local and international universities, Tohme said.

“The challenge is to maintain the collection,” he said. “It requires a generational commitment. It must be maintained for eternity.”


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