Genebank transfer from war zone praised

Australia and the GRDC have been thanked for their efforts to safeguard ICARDA’s unique genebank from civil conflict in Syria

Image of ICARDA genebank

ICARDA’s base seed collection at Tel Hadya station, Syria, before its relocation.

PHOTO: ICARDA

That one of the world’s great genebanks was not lost during Syria’s civil war owes a great deal to the foresight and fortitude of the staff at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

In 2014, armed Syrian rebels occupied ICARDA’s main research station and headquarters near Aleppo in Syria. While international staff were evacuated, local scientists remained, negotiating with rebel fighters to continue the most essential work.

This included the efforts of ICARDA’s Genetic Resource Section (GRS), headed by Dr Ahmed Amri, to duplicate and transport ICARDA’s genebank for safe storage to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

More than 80 per cent (116,484 plant accessions) of the collection is now safely stored, including one of the world’s largest collections of barley, faba bean and lentil seeds, along with ancient varieties of durum and bread wheat.

Their effort was recognised in March this year when the GRS and ICARDA’s director-general, Dr Mahmoud Solh, accepted the prestigious Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize in Berlin.

The prize is one of the world’s top honours for outstanding contributions to plant breeding.

Dr Solh said that safeguarding the genebank was a critical mission for ICARDA. “We are entrusted with the genetic wealth from some 128 countries – a resource we cannot afford to lose.”

In accepting the award, ICARDA expressed a special note of gratitude to the GRDC, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, the Crop Trust, and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development for supporting its genetic resources and genebank activities.

Australia has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with ICARDA that has also seen exchanges of scientists, germplasm and technical expertise, including the development work for the focused identification of germplasm strategy (FIGS) that radically improves the ability to search genebanks for specific traits. Its development was funded by the GRDC.

Each year, ICARDA also fast-tracks elite material to Australian breeders as part of the GRDC’s CIMMYT-Australia-ICARDA Germplasm Evaluation (CAIGE) Program that is helping to broaden the genetic basis of Australian cereals.

GRDC project manager for traits and crop genetics Dr Lauren Du Fall says the GRDC values its strategic partnership with ICARDA, a relationship that was formalised again in 2014 with the signing of the current GRDC–ICARDA alliance agreement.

ICARDA’s main operations have been decentralised and its headquarters moved to Jordan.

Dr Du Fall says the relationship also reflects the many similarities between the environments and grain-growing challenges in Australia and northern Syria: “It makes sense to combine resources to generate outcomes that will benefit both Australian breeders and agricultural research in the dry areas,” she says.

ICARDA’s Dr Amri says the collection is a uniquely rich resource for agricultural scientists seeking germplasm tolerant to crop stresses, such as drought.

Most of the germplasm was collected from the Central and West Asia and North Africa (CWANA) region over the past four decades. This germplasm is of particular significance to countries such as Australia where water limitation is a primary constraint on grain production.

ICARDA’s acknowledgement of the GRDC bears particular resonance for former ICARDA plant breeder Dr Francis Ogbonnaya, who remains in close contact with ICARDA staff and now serves as GRDC senior manager for crop genetics and coordinator of the ‘Improving crop yield’ theme.

“When we had to evacuate Aleppo – leave our trials and colleagues – it was a decision that had to be made for the sake of safety,” Dr Ogbonnaya says. “But it is something that haunts you, especially the people left behind. That they saved the genebank is of monumental importance.”

He adds that the Australian pulse-breeding program in particular owes a great deal to the infusion of ICARDA germplasm. “Today in Australia we have a pulse industry and breeding programs that improve pulse productivity thanks to the relationship with ICARDA.”

More information:

Dr Lauren Du Fall,
02 6166 4500,

lauren.dufall@grdc.com.au

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GRDC Project Code ICA00010, ICA00011, ICA00012, ICA00013, ICA00014