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Cryopreservation – Safeguarding crops for millennia

Cryopreservation consists of storing plant material in liquid nitrogen at -196 °C. A new video explains how Bioversity International is using cryopreservation to back up its banana diversity collection in Leuven, Belgium.

Cryopreservation consists of storing plant material in liquid nitrogen at -196 °C. A new video explains how Bioversity International is using cryopreservation to back up its banana diversity collection in Leuven, Belgium.

Crop diversity is vital to ensure our current and future food security. Yet, climate change, pests and diseases, unsustainable farming practices and many other factors are threatening this diversity.  That's why we need to safeguard it.

Crops are often conserved through their seeds. But what happens to crops that don't produce seeds or their seeds cannot be easily stored, such as banana, potato and cassava? They are conserved as collections of field plants or small plantlets in test tubes. 

While in the short term these conservation methods are very effective, in the long term they are expensive and time-intensive. If we want to safeguard these crops for hundreds or thousands of years, we need another conservation method: cryopreservation.

With cryopreservation, plant materials are frozen to -196 °C in liquid nitrogen. The extremely low temperature stops all biological and chemical processes, so the plant remains unaltered for thousands of years and can be revived into a full plant as needed. 

Bioversity International uses cryopreservation to back up its collection of banana varieties conserved at the International Musa Germplasm Transit Centre (also known as ITC) hosted at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.

With more than 1,500 banana accessions, the ITC is the world's largest collection of banana germplasm. More than 60% of the banana accessions conserved in Leuven are cryopreserved, and, for security reasons, safety duplicated at the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD) in Montpellier, France, 1,000 kilometres from Leuven. The ITC is working hard to have the entire collection cryopreserved in the foreseeable future. 

The ITC is a global centre of excellence on plant cryopreservation, having successfully developed protocols for cryopreserving over 30 crops, including apple, banana, cassava, olive, potato and tomato. Over the past 20 years, scientists at the ITC have trained around 100 researchers from 44 countries on plant cryopreservation techniques, resulting in the adoption of new conservation technologies for specific crops, and publication of research papers and development of new projects.

Find out more about cryopreservation in this video

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The Bioversity International Musa Germplasm Transit Centre is supported by:
The CGIAR Research Program for Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections, the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas, CGIAR Fund Donors, the Crop Trust, BMZ - Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Belgian Development Cooperation, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

To study the feasibility of a Global CryoVault, Bioversity International is championing a task force of CGIAR and Crop Trust scientists who will oversee a feasibility study implemented by global external experts, with the generous support of Australia, Germany and Switzerland.

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