Gene bank strengthens global agricultural efforts in a changing climate

19 May 2022
hands holding grain

A new state-of-the-art gene bank has been opened in Morocco by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

Gene banks play a crucial role in providing the materials required by researchers and global breeding programs to develop high-yielding, resilient and climate-adapted crops.

Opened yesterday in Rabat, the ICARDA Genebank will safely store unique and extensive collections of wheat, barley, chickpea, faba bean, lentil, and forage genetic material, and has cold rooms large enough to safe-keep ICARDA's entire genetic resource collection for 100 years before regeneration.

ICARDA is one of a network of 15 CGIAR international agricultural research centres dedicated to reducing rural poverty, increasing food and nutrition security for human health, and improving natural resource systems and ecosystem services.

The gene bank is strategically located to facilitate research of regional wild species and crop ancestors that thrive in harsh conditions. Studying these locally collected species offers a valuable opportunity for countries like Australia, which are pursuing opportunities to climate-proof future crops.

ICARDIA opening
Minister of Agriculture, Morocco, H.E. Mohamed Sadiki (center right), and Regional CGIAR Director, Aly Abousabaa (center left) open the new ICARDA gene bank in Rabat, Morocco. Image: ICARDA

Director of Multilateral Engagement at ACIAR, Dr Julianne Biddle, explains that gene banks provide direct value and benefits for Australian farmers and agriculture.

'Most of Australia's key crop species have been bred off the back of these global gene banks. The centres of diversity for most of the species that we rely on for our staple foods are in countries that are not Australia.

‘The battle that plant breeders are having with the environment, pests, and diseases to improve plants relies on this foundation of germplasm, or genetic diversity, that they can source from those gene banks,’ said Dr Biddle.

'CGIAR global gene banks are at the forefront of sharing germplasm and mobilising it for use by CGIAR's breeding programs and breeding programs in different countries connected to the CGIAR,’ said Dr Biddle.

CGIAR germplasm has been incorporated into and has greatly improved Australian plant breeding programs. For example, 98% of all wheat grown in Australia is derived from CGIAR wheat germplasm.

Australian plant breeders are currently searching through global gene banks for heat stress traits in germplasm. While breeders have previously looked for resilience to salt tolerance and drying, there has not been a focus on resilience to high temperatures, which is becoming more of a challenge for Australian growers each year.

‘Gene banks are the main source of our ability to overcome these challenges in the face of climate change,' said Dr Biddle.

ACIAR, on behalf of Australia, has been a significant core funder of the CGIAR since 1982 and has high-level representation on CGIAR governance bodies. By investing in gene banks, Australia can ensure that this important infrastructure is well supported and governed.

‘It is really important that we don't just preserve genetic diversity, but that people can use it. Making sure that it can be used fairly by anybody who wants to gain value from that germplasm is an important issue.

‘Australia's funding of global gene banks contributes to Australia’s global citizen goals. We fund gene banks not just for our benefit, but for the benefit of the whole research innovation system,’ said Dr Biddle.

Learn more about the partnership between ACIAR and the CGIAR on our the ACIAR website.