Safety is preached heavily, especially in agriculture. But what do we know about the safety of our seeds? There are specific banks around the world that exist to keep seeds and germplasms safe and abundant.

“Seed banks are important for preserving existing germplasm so breeders have the diversity to choose from for developing improved varieties,” says Jeff Coulter, University of Minnesota Extension agronomist.

One of those seed banks is the USDA Soybean Germplasm Collection at the University of Illinois in Urbana, IL.

“We are the second-largest soybean (seed) collection in the world, and a major source of soybean germplasm for the world,” says Randall Nelson, research leader and supervisory research geneticist, USDA. “We have more than 20,000 lines, and we send out 25,000-30,000 seed samples/year to private and public researchers.”

All lines in the USDA collection are freely available for research, Nelson says.

“We have a small collection of private varieties that are nominated by companies after the varieties are no longer sold commercially,” he says. “We try to preserve those that have unique pedigrees or that are important for historical reasons so in 50 years when someone wants to study a variety grown on several million acres, we'll have that seed.”

SEEDS STORED AT the USDA facility in Urbana can be kept for 10 years, and longer at the backup location at Fort Collins, CO, which is stored under secure conditions and much colder temperatures.

“We can keep material for 10 years, then we grow it out and replace the seed,” Nelson says. “The backup collection at Fort Collins is good for 50-100 years.”

The lines in the USDA bank are “the raw material for improved varieties in the future,” says Nelson. “One important use is as sources of insect and disease resistance. Ten years ago, no one cared about aphid resistance. When aphids were found in the U.S. in 2000, people screened the collection and now we have aphid-resistant varieties.”

The USDA facility continues to make sure farmers have what they need by providing germplasm to public and private researchers.

“We do a lot of research on more complicated traits, like yield,” Nelson says. “We're actively using the diversity in the collection to develop high-yielding lines with very different genetic background. We make them available to other breeders to use.”

THE VAULT OF VAULTS

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) in Norway currently houses 430,000 seed samples (with each sample containing about 500 seeds), with a capacity of four to five times that.

This vault exists as safety storage for preservation of duplicate collections on behalf of gene banks. The USDA-ARS Soybean/Maize Research Unit in Urbana, IL, sends samples there.

“Safety duplications of seed samples are urgent; genetic resources are vanishing rapidly in the field,” says Roland von Bothmer, public relations representative for SGSV. “We have no figures of what is lost, but it happens rapidly. If that lost material had been in a safety duplication in the SGSV, it would have been easy to multiply and replace the lost seeds.”

Von Bothmer says several reasons make SGSV a safe place to store seeds, including its stable political and geographical location.

“The vault is built into a mountain in permafrost,” he says. “Vault construction is secure and is under 24-hour surveillance of temperature, water, etc.”