Making sure that the collections of beans, cassava, bananas, and forages remain alive, even during the quarantine, is an essential job of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT in order to preserve the world’s biodiversity and food safety.
From its work sites in laboratories, greenhouses, and experimental fields in Palmira, Colombia, and at the University of Louvain, in Belgium, Mónica, Melissa, Madelyn, Ramiro, Javier, Jair, Wilmer, Vincent, and Bart tell us about their experience in which they take on with equal responsibility the preventive measures established by the health authorities of their countries and those of our own organization. Their mission during the confinement is to safeguard the patrimony of more than 150 nations of the world that have entrusted the Alliance with one of their most precious treasures, their seeds.
Multiplying the patrimony of a nation
“It is something that is unique. It is a bean grown without soil, only in water; it is a hydroponic bean. We are starting, but we have already established it,” says the researcher, Javier Gereda, with pride. His routine in the area of bean seed regeneration of the Genetic Resources Program, in the headquarters of the Alliance in Palmira, has not changed. But since the quarantine started, the responsibility to maintain these collections alive in the field falls on his shoulders and on the shoulders of eleven other coworkers, who are at the off-site experimental stations.
In addition to the care of this type of bean that has no sanitary problems caused by the soil, Javier must take care that the seeds they were given to multiply in the field carry on their normal trajectory of growth. There are a couple of species of bean that also merit special care and attention. They are the Phaseolus hygrophilus and Phaseolus albicarminus, of which there is now no trace in the country where they were collected, Costa Rica. “To lose a variety is to lose the patrimony of a country,” says the researcher.
The researcher Ramiro Sabogal is Javier’s coworker and he has been very active since the quarantine began. There was even a weekend when he was responsible for all the fields of genetic resources. One of his jobs is visiting the growth chambers to water the accessions of beans that are in “intensive care.”
Meanwhile, Javier must also make the rounds of the Alliance’s five seed regeneration stations, coordinating the basic work of maintaining the crops: watering, pruning, fertilization, and even harvesting. The work cannot stop because the commitment to multiply the 120 seeds that they were given for each accession or variety and produce 1,800 fresh seeds from them was not modified by the quarantine.
“It is not the work of one or two people, it is the consolidation of work done as a team that must be coordinated.”
Javier Mauricio Gereda
Research Assistant, Bean Regeneration, Genetic Resources Program, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT
Behind the scenes in the safekeeping of the primary sources
Mónica Vélez and Melissa Correa, research assistants, worked out weekly shifts to monitor the in vitro laboratory of cassava and their greenhouses. In the solitude of the laboratory, these young researchers walk the aisles of the sultry room lit with powerful white lights, under which are prominently displayed the names of the 28 countries from which the genetic material came in order to be conserved.
They check whether the cassava plants kept in test tubes are growing well, whether they have started to age, whether their leaves are turning yellow, and whether it is necessary to take them to the planting area to multiply them in fresh media, and thus give them a new opportunity for life while, at the same time, guaranteeing the conservation of the materials over the long term.
Outside, in the greenhouse, we find the back-up copy kept under growth restriction, in a system called the Bonsai collection. There the goal is to keep insects, mites, or any other pest from attacking the plants, because it has taken a long time to establish them. Of course the plants must be watered and the weeds must be controlled as well.
“If these primary sources were to be lost, we would have serious problems. The food for today and for the future depends on keeping these plants safe,” says Monica, who is confident that everything will soon return to normal and the complete work team will return to continue carrying out the task of conserving the more than six thousand accessions of cassava that are in safekeeping in this bank.
Mapping the way to Svalbard
When they have a specific job to carry out jointly, Jair Bolívar and Wilmer Ávila come to the field, but they understand very clearly that they must avoid crossing paths in these times of social distancing. They go their separate ways, and they know what they must do to keep the forage standing, the fodder that serves to feed livestock and that contributes to the reduction of environmental impacts.
Concentrating on each flower, Jair is harvesting the seed of a variety known as Stylosanthes, with no more tools than his own hands. Jair keeps the seeds in small cloth bags, labels them, and will keep them until the obligatory confinement has ended and his coworkers from the Genetic Resources bank come back to continue the exacting chain of conservation that will make it possible for these seeds to make their way to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, very close to the North Pole.
Jair and Wilmer are also in charge of pruning, watering, and fumigating the grasses and legumes that grow in the middle of the solitude of this 500-hectare campus.
“I am very happy to be contributing to the program at this time,” says the field worker, and, conscious of his tremendous responsibility, Jair is emphatic in pointing out: “we are prepared to not let this patrimony die.”
Peter Wenzl, leader of the Genetic Resources Program in Palmira, coordinates all the activities that were scheduled for the period of quarantine, supported by his team of more than 80 people, most of whom are working remotely.
“It is in times like these that we must carry out our role as guardians of agrobiodiversity.”
Leader, Genetic Resources Program, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT
For the future of a unique collection
The International Musa Germplasm Transit Centre houses the world’s largest collection of banana germplasm: more than 1,500 accessions of edible and wild species of banana are conserved in vitro. At the University of Louvain, in Belgium, Madelyn Ibana, Vincent Fichefet, and four other colleagues take turns carrying out the essential activities in the laboratory, which, if they were not done, would put the valuable germplasm at risk or even delay the research for several years.
Madelyn goes in once a week, for reasons of safety. Among her tasks and those of Vincent, her coworker on the shift, are the preparation of planting media, the selection of material for multiplication, and the visual check of all the materials, to determine the presence of microbial contamination and discard the ones that are contaminated.
“I am conscious of the fact that continuous follow-up in our laboratory is a crucial aspect for the future of the banana collection. We cannot ignore it,” says Madelyn, who must also record the activities performed during the day to make sure that they are documented in a complete data base.
The banana “working” collection is conserved in vitro under conditions of slow growth at 16°C. For safety, samples are frozen for the long term in cryotanks at -196°C, the temperature of liquid nitrogen, in a process called cryopreservation.
“For example, the screening and regular filling of the cryotanks with liquid nitrogen is essential, as well as the in vitro maintenance of the banana accessions that have not yet been cryopreserved (30%). In theory, we could rely on almost 70% of the banana germplasm that has been cryoconserved, but if we have to reestablish all our in vitro cultures from cryoconserved material, it would take years for the germplasm to be available to send to our users. That is the reason why, at this time, we Ines Van den Hhouwe, the banana germplasm curator, and me have decided to maintain the stock of plants in the cold chamber at a minimum (but essential) level,” says Bart Panis, cryopreservation specialist a scientist and conservation team leader of the Alliance, who is at the forefront of the laboratory.
The researcher tells us the weighty reason for which the vice rector of the University of Louvain allowed them to continue the basic activities in the laboratory: “because it is the global banana collection. The motivation of this work team at this time ensures the collection of material for future generations.”
They are stored in the Alliance genebanks in Palmira and Leuven