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Sowing For Diversity WSU Seed Bank Preserving Crop Plant Varieties

Call it the federal reserve bank for food crops.

Instead of money, bank deposits include an amazing array of seeds in a freezer vault on the edge of the Washington State University campus.

The collection contains seeds for beans, lettuce and peas; grasses for grazing, and non-agricultural plants.

The WSU program is part of a national network of plant banks built to preserve the differences found in nature.

For consumers, the biological storehouse helps ensure an abundant supply of food at low cost for years to come.

This is how it works: Scientists rely on genetic differences among plants to cross-breed stronger strains of seeds. By preserving a large number of plants, scientists have the greatest number of genetic combinations for their work.

That allows them more chances to improve productive strains and develop disease-resistant varieties.

Seed bank director Raymond Clark and about 25 employees collect, raise and study these plants. Frequently, they travel abroad looking for wild strains that might contain new traits.

The plant bank becomes increasingly important as wild lands around the world diminish from development, logging and farming.

Researchers can tap into the plant bank’s collection at no cost.

The WSU bank stores some 12,000 different strains of beans in various colors, shapes and sizes. It is the largest single collection at WSU.

“Beans are always fun because there is so much diversity,” said Rich Hannen, plant bank horticulturist.

Some come from Mexico and South America. Others descended from historical farming methods.

If properly stored, seeds can last 30 to 50 years. Hannen and his staff grow dozens of varieties in a campus greenhouse.

New seeds are screened for diseases, and some are used by campus researchers looking for new traits. The rest are stored in a freezer vault.

As large as the WSU bean collection is, it amounts to only a fraction of species in the world. More than 30,000 bean strains are stored at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia, Hannen said.

For seed researchers like Hannen, a trip to Colombia is like Mohammed going to Mecca. Hannen has been there, thrilled to increase WSU’s bean collection, he said, but trips into Colombia’s countryside are dangerous because of cocaine traffickers.

Modern agriculture’s emphasis on uniformity and yield reduced the genetic variations in cultivated crops. That uniformity limits scientists’ ability to develop resistant strains in the face of a new plant diseases.

History is full of examples of disease-related crop failures, everything from the Irish potato famine to a local chickpea blight in the 1980s. In the Midwest, beans are threatened by a new type of plant rust, or fungus.

When new diseases break out, researchers tap into the government’s plant banks to test for disease-resistant strains. Inevitably, they crossbreed a different strain into those being used in cultivation.

It takes five to 10 years to come up with new strains after disease-related crop failures.

In the early 1980s, the chickpea crop in Eastern Washington was hit with a devastating leaf blight. Since blight is carried on plant debris and through the seeds, any future plantings of that variety would be subject to the disease.

Within several years, scientists came up with a new strain resistant to the blight, and chickpea production returned to normal, Clark said.

“You are always trying to stay one step ahead of the disease,” Hannen said.

WSU’s collection is getting bigger all the time. Between 2,000 and 4,000 new species are added each year.

In 1983, WSU had 13 different types of garlic. It now has 195.

A garlic lover, Hannen said he’s tried every one. After all, evaluating the flavor is an important part of food research.

“I like the French red that’s being grown in the Palouse,” he said. It’s available from some local growers.

Plant banks help seed companies improve their varieties.

For example, French cooks love tiny peas, but none of the varieties in cultivation are small enough to please the chefs.

Bob Arthur, an agronomist for Crites-Moscow Growers, is using WSU’s plant bank to develop a tinier pea.

Arthur said he checks WSU’s test plots every year looking for traits he could use in his seed development.

Before the U.S. Department of Agriculture organized its plant banks in the 1890s, seeds and stocks were held haphazardly by farmers, hobbyists and others.

Now, plants are numbered and entered into a computer system.

“We feel our program is one of the easiest ones to justify on a national level,” Clark said.

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