When the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 – its austere concrete entrance overlooking a frozen Norwegian island – it became an icon of genebanks’ vital mission to preserve crop diversity. Now, a new genebank in the tropics could make a similar mark, with an equally distinctive design and an urgent research agenda. Last week, researchers and officials dedicated a $17 million gene bank facility in Palmira, Colombia, with a tall metal canopy meant to evoke a forest. It will provide an expanded home for the world’s largest collection of beans, cassava and tropical forage grasses, which breeders use to create better performing, climate-resistant crops.
“It’s really fantastic,” says Theo van Hintum, head of the plant gene bank at the Center for Genetic Resources at Wageningen University and Research. “It shows that we, as a global community, are ready to invest in conserving genetic diversity and keeping it available for future generations.”
The new building, called Future Seeds, replaces a decades-old facility in Cali, Colombia that was once a meat quality laboratory and slaughterhouse. It increases the storage capacity of the genebank’s current target plants by almost a third, and eventually could store other types of crops as well. It now contains around 67,000 samples – known as germplasm – of crop varieties or populations, many of which are no longer in cultivation. Most of them are stored as seeds at -20°C, including nearly 38,000 samples of beans and nearly 23,000 samples of tropical forage legumes and grasses grown in pasture for livestock.
To build the new facility, the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture received approximately $6 million in funding from the Colombian government, the United Kingdom and others. Planners wanted to create a structure that would be both an architectural landmark and environmentally sustainable, says genebank director Peter Wenzl. Its corrugated metal canopy, up to 15 meters high, keeps buildings cooler and collects rainwater, and nearby solar panels provide more than enough electricity.
A large open office space will accommodate visiting scientists, including national gene bank partners. “You feel a certain calm and peace that allows you to focus and be creative,” says Wenzl. And the high ceiling, he adds, makes it “feel like a germplasm cathedral.”
Last week, the Bezos Earth Fund awarded $17 million to Future Seeds, shortly after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos visited. The grant will help fund the conservation and breeding of deep-rooted tropical forage grasses for soil carbon sequestration. A candidate is already kept in the collection: a grass named Brachiaria humidicola. It has an added climate benefit because it releases compounds that prevent soil microbes from converting ammonium ions into potent greenhouse gases.
The bank also holds some 6,000 tissue samples from cassava, a starchy tuber that is a major staple in Latin America and Africa. Cassava is more labor intensive to store because it cannot be stored as seed. Instead, plants must be regenerated as clonal organisms, such as potatoes, from seedlings growing in sterile test tubes. The new bank has facilities that will make it easier for technicians to process and store disease-free plant tissue, van Hintum says, making cassava preservation more reliable.
“This is a major added value for the whole cassava community across the world,” says Robert Kawuki, cassava breeder at the National Agricultural Resources Research Institute in Uganda. “This can ensure the future of cassava.”
A new genomics lab, meanwhile, will allow the alliance to speed up its genotyping of stored samples, producing data that can flag duplicate samples and show whether varieties present in other genebanks are missing from the collection. The broader goal of genotyping is to help breeders more easily identify varieties with useful traits, such as drought tolerance and disease resistance. “It will help decide which germplasm is worth looking at because the collection is so large,” says Karen Cichy, plant geneticist and bean breeder at the US Department of Agriculture. “It’s really helpful.”
Wenzl hopes the building, which will also be open to school visitors and the general public, will also inspire the next generation of plant breeders and genebank curators. Cichy agrees: “It’s absolutely beautiful. It could really make people realize that it is something precious.