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Historic seed samples to monitor genetic variation

Scientist_collecting_mission_Jordan Credit: Bioversity International/I. Thormann

Bioversity International's digitised historical passport data for landrace and crop wild relative samples from all over the world proves its worth when it comes to assessing genetic changes of wild barley over time in Jordan.

Bioversity International's digitised historical passport data for landrace and crop wild relative samples from all over the world proves its worth when it comes to assessing genetic changes of wild barley over time in Jordan. The study compared recently obtained plant samples with historic seed material in seedbanks collected 31 years earlier on identical locations. The analysis helped researchers observe how species react to climate and land use change, intensification in agriculture and other threats over time.

Bioversity International has over the last few years digitised original passport data for over 220,000 landrace and crop wild relative (CWR) samples which were collected from all over the world between 1975 and 2012. 

All this valuable information was made available on the Bioversity International website in 2014 in the Collecting Missions Database and is now set to be accessed by a much higher number of people as the data is now published on the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), the biggest biodiversity database on the Internet. GBIF is an open data infrastructure helping institutions to publish their data according to common standards and provides a single point of access to hundreds of millions of records.

But what is this data for and why does increasing access to it matter?

A study in Jordan, implemented by Bioversity International and partners*, gives one example of how the Collecting Mission data can be used to retrieve historic seed material in genebanks and compare it with recently collected material from the same site to assess genetic variation over time.

In 2012, in Jordan, the team set out to re-collect wild barley from the same locations where it had been collected 31 years earlier. Crop wild relatives have become increasingly important for plant breeding as they are genetically related to cultivated crops and continue to evolve in their natural environment, developing traits such as drought tolerance or pest resistance.Georeferenced samples in a heat map of Jordan. 
</p><p>Photo credit: Bioversity International/I. Thormann

During the period of 31 years between collections, the climate in Jordan has become significantly hotter and also drier. Agriculture has intensified, and the number of livestock nearly doubled. Data about plants grown on trial sites from the original seed collection, which had been stored in the genebank of the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) in Sweden, were compared to that from plants grown from the re-collected seeds from 2012. The analysis considered morphological as well as genetic characteristics, to understand how species react to climate change, land use change, intensification in agriculture and other threats, over time (Thormann et al 2016).

Wild barley plants showed a rather complex and compound response to this changing environment. Their genetic diversity had increased, but the populations showed less differences between each other than 31 years ago. This is likely the result of seeds moving around the country more easily today with increased activities in agriculture and herding. The same phenomenon has been reported in a parallel study by the same research group on barley landraces in Jordan (Thormann et al 2017).  Seed flow and seed management practices influence the distribution of diversity across the country and over time. For example, wild barley plants have long bristly appendages that stick to clothes and shoes, as well as animal fur, meaning they move around quite easily.

Bioversity International’s Collecting Missions have been instrumental in setting up the research material for this monitoring study, with the data about the re-collection in Jordan included in the online database which is now available also through GBIF. A next step would be to carry out similar studies on wild barley in other countries to compare results. Furthermore, the collecting data enables users to trace and re-collect other species in order to carry out similar studies.

Imke Thormann and Hannes Gaisberger

Find out more about Collecting Missions by following this link.

This work was carried out in collaboration with The German federal genebank IPK, the USDA-ARS Germplasm Preservation Research Unit in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA, Martin Luther University Halle, Germany, and the National Center for Agricultural Research and Extension NCARE, Amman, Jordan.

Photo 1: Researchers collecting wild barley samples. Photo 1 credit: Dr Christopher Richards, USDA

Photo 2: Georeferenced samples in a heat map of Jordan. Photo 2 credit: Bioversity International/I. Thormann


Related papers:

Thormann et al. (2017) Changes in barley (Hordeum vulgare L. subsp. vulgare) genetic diversity and structure in Jordan over a period of 31 years. Plant Genetic Resources: Characterization and Utilization.

Thormann et al. (2016) Genotypic and phenotypic changes in wild barley (Hordeum vulgare subsp. spontaneum) during a period of climate change in Jordan. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.

Thormann et al. (2015) Plant genetic resources collections and associated information as baseline resource for genetic diversity studies – an assessment of the IBPGR supported collections. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 62(8):1279-1293.  

Thormann et al. (2012) Digitization and online availability of original collecting mission data to improve data quality and enhance the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. 59(5):635-644.