NC7: Conservation, Management, Enhancement and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources

(Multistate Research Project)

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Need as determined by stakeholders:

The conservation, management and utilization of plant genetic resources, also known as germplasm, enable harnessing genetic diversity to create and sustain agricultural production systems, necessary for economic security, and a stable and healthy society. Germplasm, both the genetic material (genes, groups of genes, chromosomes) that controls heredity and the tissues, organs and organisms that express the variation contained in that genetic material, provides the essential building blocks to ensure future improvements in production and quality, and for innovations in crop development and utilization. Diverse germplasm is crucial to our ability to continually refine cultivars, inputs, production systems, markets and end-use processes to respond to production challenges and to support changing societal needs for food, feed, fiber, bioenergy, and aesthetic uses.  Genetic resources in combination with water, air, soil, minerals and crop management practices, together with cultural and market forces define the agricultural production systems that sustain humanity.  These resources comprise the essence of our environment and consequently, our quality of life by providing crucial ecological services and valued aesthetic qualities.  

Plant genetic resources acquired throughout the world and conserved at the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station (NCRPIS) in Ames, IA serve a crucial role in supporting and sustaining humanity.  This project is part of the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), to conserve, characterize, evaluate, and distribute germplasm and associated information to researchers, educators, and commercial producers.  It addresses multiple priorities, including global food security, value-added genes in conventional breeding and molecular biology, new plant species for agricultural production, nutritional quality of plant and food products, and natural resource and ecosystem quality. 

The Maize Crop Germplasm Committee, a stakeholder advisory group, noted in their 2016 update to the maize crop vulnerability statement that “Maize … is the most important crop in the United States and one of the top three cereals in world calorie production.  The United States is the world’s leading exporter of maize.  Because of the importance of the crop to the United States’ economy and the world food supply, it is essential that maize germplasm be protected, maintained, and enhanced.”  Similar stakeholder input on other NCRPIS crops provides strong evidence of the need for this project.

Importance of the problem

As the major grain production area in the world, the vitality of the agricultural system of the USA and the North Central Region (NCR) in particular is crucial to global food security. Historically, many of the region’s crops were not indigenous to the U.S. Diverse plant genetic resources for use in crop development and associated information are vital to ensure the continued productivity of this region, given ever changing environmental and societal needs.  Production of corn and other non-native crop species has helped the NCR become the world’s major grain production area. Therefore, the health of the agricultural system of the NCR is crucial to global food security, and increasingly to security of U.S. energy production.  Expanded use of crops for ethanol, biodiesel, or ‘drop in’ fuels is considered fundamental to U.S. security, and nutritional quality is fundamental to food security, health and well-being. 

Increased diversification of crops that can be integrated into existing sustainable production systems without compromising acres devoted to food use, and that can extend the period of capture of solar energy are high priorities.  Integrated cropping strategies that maximize use of targeted genetic resources will contribute to improved soil and water quality; successful innovations will enhance the economic viability of producers and provide new market alternatives, and will support national rural development and environmental quality objectives.  Areas within the NCR utilize plant diversity to different degrees in their agricultural production, some extensively; yet abiotic, biotic and market pressures threaten profitability and therefore the sustainability of existing crop production. New species must also be evaluated for invasive potential, and appropriate risk assessments made concerning their introduction into new geographic areas. 

Prior to the use of petroleum for energy production, society depended much more intimately on plant products for fuel and industrial feedstocks. Society is looking once again to agricultural-production solutions for its energy and industrial raw-material needs, and research and development related to potential utilization of alternative plant species for energy production and for food, fuel, fiber, medicinal or nutriceutical, and biobased products are all increasing in priority. Demand for the oilseeds collections for biofuel and industrial product applications as well as for food production has dramatically increased.  Developing an understanding of selectable traits and the underlying genetic variation that can contribute to these objectives is challenging. 

Because water is a limiting factor for production in many areas of the globe as well as in the U.S., development of drought-tolerant varieties is an important objective. Climate change has resulted in increased variability in both rainfall and temperature; research on increased tolerance to both extreme heat and cold conditions during sensitive growth stages is crucial to identify phenotypes and associated genetic mechanisms to deal with these challenges.  Nutritional needs also drive demand for plant genetic resources, especially for the vegetable collections.  Crop production on marginally productive lands threatens ecosystem and production system sustainability, and positive impacts on rural development are needed. Understanding how to manage and produce new crops is a complex task, and important in order to minimize economic and environmental risks and maximize benefits to producers, end-users and consumers. The Department of Energy actively engages NCR and researchers in plant breeding and genetics, biochemistry, germplasm curation, agronomy, and various technologies to understand the energy potential of new and established crops.   

Technical feasibility

Diverse germplasm collections are developed and maintained at the NCRPIS in excellent cold storage facilities, and well-developed building and land infrastructure is available.  The NCRPIS has been partially funded by Regional (now Multi-State) Project NC-007 since 1947 and by the USDA-ARS.  Iowa State University serves as its host institution and provides excellent in kind and administrative support.  The NCRPIS was the first Regional Plant Introduction Station in the U.S., and has served as a major component of the network of 20 NPGS sites for the last 68 years.  The NCRPIS maintains and provides plant genetic resources, associated information, and a wide variety of technical and leadership services devoted to substantially improving agricultural technology in the U.S. and abroad.  In 2003, it was designated by the USDA-ARS as a mission-critical site.  Its staff led the collaboration to replace the legacy Germplasm Resource Information Network (GRIN) with the GRIN-Global System, designed to support any genebank’s information management needs. 

Through use of the products of plant genome sequencing efforts, statistics, and bioinformatics tools, researchers are integrating phenotypic, genomic, and metabolic information in order to understand gene function and expression in ways never before possible. These efforts will enable innovative uses of plant genetic resources and new impacts and benefits to society.

Advantages of Multi-State effort:

Crop collections important to the North Central Region have been supported since 1947 through the partnerships with Multi-State Project NC-007, the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, the State Agricultural Experiment Stations (SAES) of the NCR, and Iowa State University.  For 69 years NC-007 has served as a major repository within the NPGS and supported the activities of NCR and global researchers, educators, and producers to improve crop production genetics and technologies.  The Multi-State Participants have used these germplasm and information resources to improve crop genetics and production technologies, and to enhance the health and nutrition of society.  

Since 1954, the NCRPIS has coordinated a cooperative network involving the NCR’s State Agricultural Experiment Stations, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and public gardens and arboreta to conduct long-term evaluations of promising new trees and shrubs.  This network collects and summarizes performance data that shed light on plant-environment interactions and provide practical advice to landscape professionals.  The NCR is an especially challenging region for the cultivation of trees and shrubs, with its climatic extremes, grassland soils, and increasing urbanization.  Furthermore, new biotic stresses caused by the rise of new pests and diseases, such as Emerald Ash Borer or the Asian longhorned beetle, present special challenges that can only be addressed by ensuring the ongoing availability of a diverse array of well-adapted landscape plants. Today, maize genetic resources are contributing to the search for genetic resistance to Maize Lethal Necrosis, a relatively new disease that is devastating production of many African farmers. 

Because of the diversity of environments and needs in the North Central Region, and the diversity of research interests and expertise available, it is only logical and fitting that a multi-disciplinary effort utilizing the talents of all interested researchers be rigorously applied to develop and test potential solutions to these many challenges.

Benefits and impacts

The impacts of secure and successful germplasm conservation, management, enhancement and utilization can be measured in the introduction of economically viable new crops and cultivars and new uses for existing crops based on a thorough understanding of their traits and properties, including nutritional, chemical, pharmaceutical, industrial and aesthetic applications.  Genetic and phenotypic information, coupled with bioinformatics applications, will enhance our ability to understand and realize the inherent value of the plant genetic resources.  Impacts will also result from development of a fundamental understanding of the nature and biology of genetic diversity, how it interacts with and is influenced by environment, and the resulting discoveries, inventions and applications which benefit society. The researchers of the NCR and curatorial staff of the NCRPIS provide training for the next generation of plant scientists and curators, providing opportunity to sustain societal needs through agricultural innovation. 

Stakeholders

The stakeholders for this project include researchers, educators, and commercial producers worldwide who request and utilize the plant genetic resources and associated information.  The NC-007 Regional Technical Advisory Committee (RTAC) members directly contribute to this project; these members include many of the stakeholders.  The RTAC members are enriched by the exchange of information and in depth discussion of related issues offered by this forum.  Many other stakeholders are involved with the eleven Crop Germplasm Committees that meet annually (or periodically) to discuss acquisition, evaluation, management, and utilization of NC-007 genetic resources.  Information is provided both via the web interface to the GRIN-Global database and personally by curators to aid users in selecting optimal plant genetic resources to meet their research and education objectives.  These users range from public sector research and education programs, to large multi-national and small local seed and life science companies, from organic to advanced technology high yielding production, and a wide array of basic, applied, and theoretical research.

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