A look at the local facility that holds our agricultural future in its vaults.
By Eli Wallace
When fire blight decimated the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Apple Collection—an orchard in upstate New York that preserves the world’s apple strains—federal officials turned to Fort Collins, Colo. A squat building on the Colorado State University campus harbors one of America’s most important backup plans: the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. In layman’s terms, the NCGRP is a gene bank that preserves and researches seeds and animal DNA for agricultural use.
“We’re a reservoir for crop diversity,” explains Stephanie Greene, the seed curator in Fort Collins. “We’re a security backup repository within the USDA gene bank system.”
The system works much like a hard-drive backup for a computer. Samples from agricultural fields across the nation are collected at the 17 gene banks in the United States, which in turn send samples to Fort Collins in case their reserves are compromised by natural disasters or global crises.
“Our vaults are built to withstand flooding, tornadoes and other risks,” Greene says.
Climate change has increased the need to preserve heirloom seeds, as traits from these varieties can be used to better combat new pests, diseases and climatic challenges. “Scientists and breeders turn to us to find whatever traits are interesting to them. Right now, that’s resilience to climate change. But another important reason we hold these genes is that they’re being lost in fields in general. That’s tied to the use of monocultures and habitat destruction,” Greene explains.
Take those New York apples, for instance. The United States used to be home to more than 2,000 apple varieties. According to the U.S. Apple Association, only about 200 apple varieties are currently grown, including heirloom varieties. Half of those varieties are actually used in commercial production, and most supermarkets carry a selection from only the top 10 commercial varieties, such as Granny Smith, Jonathan, McIntosh, Fuji, Gala, Red Delicious and Honeycrisp.
Apples are a special case, in that all apples of a given strain are clones of one another, similar to commercially grown bananas. The seeds of a Granny Smith apple won’t grow into a perfect Granny Smith tree, so farmers use grafting techniques to create a full crop of identical Granny Smiths. That amplifies the effects of monoculture, creating not only orchards of a single plant crop, but also orchards of one genetic combination.
At the USDA’s Apple Collection in New York, twigs cut from dormant trees are sent to Fort Collins, where they’re submerged in steel tanks containing liquid nitrogen. Seeds generally are dried out to 5 to 10 percent of their original moisture content before being frozen at minus 4˚ F. Some samples, including apple twigs, have a shorter life span while frozen, and therefore chill in liquid nitrogen vapors at minus 315.4˚ F. When something goes awry in the field, like a breakout of fire blight, those dormant twigs can be thawed out and grafted onto trees to save the crop.
Active & Alive
In addition to working with other seed banks in the USDA system, the bank in Fort Collins works with agriculturalists nationwide. The constant activity within the Fort Collins collection sets it apart from the more famous “Doomsday Seed Bank”—a facility in Spitsbergen, Norway, officially known as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Svalbard’s facility is the next level of agricultural backup: In case something happens to the Fort Collins facility, roughly 20 percent of its “spare” copies of America’s seeds are stored on the remote Arctic island, carved 396 feet into a mountain that’s 810 miles from the North Pole.
“Svalbard is just there for a catastrophic disaster,” Greene says. “The seeds aren’t managed there; they only have maybe one person monitoring things. We do more with the seeds in Fort Collins, such as germination tests, monitoring viability and getting replacement samples. We keep an active and alive collection here.”
That means research in addition to storage. Some of the facility’s ongoing projects include improving cryopreservation techniques and monitoring seed longevity, genetic studies and sugar beet research, in addition to preserving important plant microbes and pathogens. The animal side of the gene bank is involved in preserving the sperm, ovules and tissues of agricultural heavy hitters like sheep, cattle and chickens. One current animal-research project, for instance, aims to develop a nonsurgical artificial-insemination technique for sheep that uses frozen and thawed ram semen.
Greene explains, “We’re trying to preserve breeds. There are a lot of livestock breeds that are endangered.” Cattle ranchers, for instance, can request germplasms or ovules from the facility to use for their breeding efforts.
NCGRP is open to the public, with garden and school groups being the main visitors, Greene says. “But we welcome everyone here.”
Editor’s Note: Tours at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation are temporarily suspended due to staff attrition at the facility. Tours are expected to resume in 2016. Visit www.ars.usda.gov for information.