Cyprus and Italy Complete Crop Wild Relative Seed Collecting

Collecting seeds of crop wild relatives (CWR), the sturdy cousins of our domesticated crops, is no easy task. They can be difficult to recognize, let alone find. Now that dedicated teams are systematically looking for these wild plants, they are turning up – when they can be found at all – by the side of steep mountain trails, in swamps, deep in highland forests… and growing along a narrow stretch of railway line between Piacenza and Milan.

Nicola Ardenghi from the University of Pavia in Northern Italy spotted Lathyrus tuberosus while looking out a train window. He and his colleagues had almost given up any hope of finding this member of the sweet pea family when he briefly caught sight of a large patch of unmistakable red flowers.

“I could not believe my eyes”, he said. “We had searched everywhere in the region, and this most elusive plant was growing next to the tracks, flanked by trees and spiny blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) bushes”. As soon as the seeds looked ripe, Nicola found himself back at the train tracks, filling his bags with seeds, while closely watching for speeding trains.

Of the 23 countries currently participating in the collecting component of the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change Project (or the Crop Wild Relatives Project, as we usually refer to it), Italy and Cyprus have already completed their seed collecting activities, a major milestone. After years of meticulous planning, the collecting phase of the project is beginning to deliver and achieve what was originally envisioned.

“Back in 2013, Italy and Cyprus were the first two countries to join this global effort that seeks to plug gaps in national and international collections, and to make this seed material available for further research,” says Jonas Mueller, Senior Research Leader, Seed Conservation, at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. “Our national partners — the Agricultural Research Institute in Cyprus and the Seed Bank Unit of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Pavia — should be applauded and thanked for their dedication to the goal of conserving crop wild relatives for future generations.”

Dedication is a pre-requisite for this work, given that seed collecting is often not at all straightforward, as demonstrated by the challenge faced by Nicola and his fellow researchers from Pavia. What’s more, before a team of seed collectors can even embark on a trip, whether by train or other means, a lot of preparation is required. For example, seeds have to be collected at just the right time. If seeds are unripe or over-ripe, they might be useless for seed banking. Permits to collect are also usually necessary, particularly when collecting seeds from national parks or private land. And often the locations are remote, difficult to get to, and sometimes downright dangerous.

What drives the seed collecting teams – regardless of the many challenges – is the knowledge that with each missed collecting opportunity comes the risk that rare plants become even rarer, and perhaps even extinct. It is a race against time to safeguard the seeds of each species in genebanks before it’s too late.

Collecting Crop Wild Relatives in Cyprus

“Before seed collecting could start, we needed more information on the detailed distribution of the over 300 species found in my country which were ranked as highest priority for collection”, said Angelos Kyratzis, Agricultural Research Officer and Curator of the Cyprus National Genebank at the Agricultural Research Institute (ARI).

This project gave Angelos and his team the opportunity to improve their knowledge of the distribution of crop wild relatives in Cyprus. The ARI team collected a staggering 256 accessions, exceeding the original target of 193.

“Our knowledge about the existence and the distribution of crop wild relatives has been hugely enriched through this collecting effort,” says Angelos. “This new knowledge will help us to revise the national strategies for both in situ and ex situ conservation.”

Two species that were particularly difficult to collect were goat grass (Aegilops bicornis), a wheat relative, classified by the Flora of Cyprus as “Vulnerable to Extinction”, and Cassius vetchling (Lathyrus cassius), classified as “Endangered with Extinction”. Both were successfully collected.

For Angelos, the outcomes of the project exceeded all expectations.

“Through participation in the project we have been able to investigate in depth the distribution of crop wild relatives on the island, and to conserve and make available this unique genetic diversity for the scientific community, and ultimately for the whole of humanity. Here in Cyprus, we’re proud of this contribution we can make to global food security.”

– Angelos Kyratzis, Cyprus National Genebank at the Agricultural Research Institute (ARI)

As with all seed collecting, a degree of flexibility is essential in terms of the number of species and number of populations per species that can be collected. Several scoping visits were necessary for the ARI team to locate populations of the wild relatives of lentils, pea, grasspea and vetch (genus Lathyrus). Collection of wild pea and grasspea is all the more difficult as these do not produce a large amount of seed in the first place.

The difficulty in making good seed collections is exacerbated in drought-prone areas like the Mediterranean, where it is very difficult to accurately schedule seed collecting trips.

For example, unusual weather conditions in 2014 meant challenging collecting conditions for the teams in both Cyprus and Italy. In Italy, high heat and humidity followed by extreme rain events resulted in an increased number of damaged and infested seeds and consequently fewer seed collections. In Cyprus, in contrast, there was drought that was considered one of the most severe in the country’s history. This seriously affected the phenology and productivity of the plants. Seed collecting was therefore targeted in those areas where climatic conditions were more favorable, such as in the Troodos Mountains and the western part of Cyprus.

In the end, seeds were collected from a wide range of habitats, including sand dunes, field and road margins, arable fields, orchards and pine and oak forests. Priority was given to collecting rare species, explains Angelos. For the first time, Vicia johannis, a close relative of the faba bean (Vicia faba), and Lathyrus hierosolymitanus (Jerusalem vetchling) were recorded in Cyprus. Unfortunately, however, not all target species were found. One species that remains to be uncovered is Aegilops kotschyi. Angelos shares that either the species is extinct on the island, or perhaps it has never occurred there, and previous specimens were confused with the similar Aegilops peregrina. Either way, more research is needed to determine the true status of A. Kotschyi in Cyprus.

“Seed collecting is the most critical step in ensuring that valuable genetic diversity of crop wild relatives is conserved and made available. It needs to be done right. The Crop Wild Relatives Project aims to empower and support dedicated partners around the world, such as ARI in Cyprus and the University of Pavia in Italy, to collect the wild relatives of 29 domesticated crops around the world.”

– Hannes Dempewolf, Scientist and CWR Project Manager at the Crop Trust

Angelos adds: “The cooperation with other key stakeholders during the project helped us to further develop our internal capacity and establish linkages for future cooperation.”

The Cypriot team was supported by scientists from the genebank at ICARDA, who visited Cyprus at the peak of the collecting seasons in May of both 2014 and 2015. These colleagues were invaluable in the final taxonomic identification of herbarium specimens and accessions that were grown for regeneration. Other collaborators included Constantinos Nikiforou, scientific coordinator of the Cyprus project, and Pavlos Poulaidis, a student at Cyprus University of Technology.

A final piece of the collaboration jigsaw was completed when ARI multiplied all the seed accessions and sent copies to the Millennium Seed Bank and the ICARDA genebank, along with 88 herbarium specimens prepared over the two years.

Collecting Crop Wild Relatives in Italy

In Italy, under the leadership of project coordinator Graziano Rossi of the University of Pavia, the team made 382 collections of 43 different taxa, including that Lathyrus tuberosus from the railway line. Seed collecting began in July 2013 and ended in 2016.

During the first two years (2013-14), seed collecting focused mainly on the Lombardy and Emilia Romagna regions in northern Italy. In order to reach all the target species and ensure genetic diversity, however, collecting efforts were extended across Italy in 2015 and included Tuscany, Sicily and Sardinia.

A highlight for the Italian team was the filming of a short documentary by the BBC entitled ‘Climate change seedbank stores crops’ wild ancestors.’ The BBC team spent two days in July 2013 documenting seed collecting activities and also visited the seed bank at the University of Pavia.

Italy’s first shipment of seeds arrived at Kew in July 2013. “This deposit marked a milestone in Kew’s seed bank history”, says Chris Cockel, Interim Crop Wild Relatives Project Coordinator. “We have not received such a large number of crop wild relative species all at once since the late 1980s.”

While initial seed cleaning is carried out in-country to aid the drying process and reduce bulk for shipping, all seeds arriving at the Millennium Seed Bank go through a process of cleaning, x-ray checking, and germination testing, before being stored in the seed bank cold chamber at -20°C. A proportion of each batch is also set aside to be sent at a later date to crop pre-breeders, who will work to develop climate change adapted varieties that ultimately will assist farmers in meeting the food security challenges of the future.

While Cyprus and Italy have completed their seed collecting efforts, 21 other partner countries continue to collect crop wild relative seed material for seed banking. Among these: Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Nigeria, and Malaysia. See map:

All collected accessions are being made available to the international community by the genebanks that conserve them under the terms of the multi-lateral system, as established by the International Plant Treaty.

For Angelos and his team, the completion of the seed-collecting phase of the CWR project is not the end of their work on CWR.

“It is a big step forward and establishes the base for further research to sustain food production, and to combat climate change for the benefit of current and future generations. It makes us very happy to be part of this effort,” he concludes.

At Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, the rewards come from working with international partners and seeing the seed material arrive from far-off places. “It really is a pleasure to work with so many partner organizations from around the world in what is really a global effort to secure the valuable genetic diversity of crop wild relatives for future generations,” notes Chris Cockel, Interim Crop Wild Relatives Project Coordinator.

“This is a true legacy project, the outputs of which will certainly long outlive us all, and help our agriculture adapt to challenges brought about by climate change. None of this would be possible without the generous funding from the Norwegian Government, and the hard work of committed partners.”

The CWR project is a 10-year global effort, overseen by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (The Crop Trust), based in Bonn, Germany, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, based in West Sussex, UK.

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