Mastering the Genebank Social Network

As the CWR Project partners continue to discover more diversity of crop wild relatives in the wild, improving systems for managing the information they generate is a crucial part of the task.

An ordinary-looking plant growing by a remote rural track or on a wind-swept mountaintop might hold within it valuable traits to enrich its domesticated relatives. But it’s a long road back to the genebank for its seeds, and that is just the first stretch of the journey.

For diversity to travel onward to where it is most needed, it’s not just seeds that need to get around, but also data.

Every packet of seed collected on a mountainside and stored in a genebank is tied to information, information that allows genebank managers to maintain their collections properly and genebank users to find what they’re looking for. The trick is finding the information.

Ideally, every seed sample’s information would be standardized and available in one place, like profiles on a social networking site for plants. These profiles may include the plant’s names and nicknames, where it was found, its characteristics, and even photos (no selfies though).

A series of efforts began in 2014 and are continuing this year to help more national and regional genebanks reach agreed standards of data management, and get their accession information where users can find it. Happily, this will have an impact beyond the world of crop wild relatives.

“When we planned this part of the project, we knew that it would make no sense to develop these systems just for wild material,” says Scientist and Project Manager Hannes Dempewolf, from the Crop Trust. The best approach was simply to help genebanks manage all of their information, and all of their collection, to the highest standards possible.

Assessments across the World

The first stage of this work was a journey in itself, in fact a series of journeys. In 2014 and 2015, the project supported visits of experts to 26 genebanks as far apart as Guatemala, Zambia and Vietnam to assess their existing documentation and information systems. Collectively, the message from these reports has been that even the best-performing of these genebanks can make substantial improvements in this area.

“Basically all of the genebanks we assessed would benefit from building up capacity for managing data, whether they just need training or the basic equipment,” says Matija Obreza, Information Systems Manager at the Crop Trust. “Relying on Excel spreadsheets, or even a card catalog, no longer cuts it.”

The most immediate outcome of the assessments has been a plan to help some of these genebanks upgrade their information infrastructure. The first four agreements to support upgrades under the CWR Project were with Peru’s Instituto Nacional de Innovacion Agraria, Vietnam’s Plant Resources Center, the Southern African Development Community’s Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Zambia and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in Fiji.

To address the training side of the equation, it was genebank staff who did the traveling. The first two Genebank Operations and Advanced Learning (G.O.A.L.) Master Classes were held in Cali, Colombia and New Delhi, India in 2015. In each of these workshops, more than 20 participants from national and international genebanks were able to upgrade their knowledge on information management, quality management and standard operating procedures. [See G.O.A.L. — Raising Genebank Standards]

Dr Michael Mackay of the University of Queensland, Australia, who facilitated the Master Class in New Delhi, co-sponsored by the Crawford Fund, was surprised to learn how similar the needs were at genebanks in different countries. “Accurately documenting agreed operating procedures for all genebank activities, and faithfully applying them, was the most interesting way for participants to improve their genebank operations,” he reports. “Not only was this of interest to small genebanks in developing countries, but also to the participants from larger genebanks and developed countries including Australia and India.”

Many staff reported that they were kept busy with activities such as seed processing, viability testing and responding to requests and had little time in their workflow for dealing with the associated data. This was the balancing act that brought Visitacion Huelgas, from the Philippines’ National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory, to the Master Class.

“What I was most interested in were the current tools and updates for better genebank documentation, in particular the database system and its alignment with the genebank workflow,” she says. “The importance of the alliance of these two was clear to me.”

Huelgas’s genebank is in the process of implementing a newly constructed database and management system, and she is keen to find more ways to align it with her team’s workflows as they put it to use. When procedures for managing seeds and their data are coordinated and streamlined, food security is the ultimate beneficiary.

“Information about genebank accessions is the key to their ultimate use in developing new varieties to address the challenges the world faces in increasing food production and security in a sustainable way,” says Mackay. “Unless this information is easily available and understandable by users of plant genetic resources, especially by breeders, its utility for deployment via new cultivars is substantially limited.”

Capacity building to continue in 2016

A workshop in Prague, Czech Republic in February will bring together more participants to train in using GRIN-Global, a genebank information management system developed, and recently adopted, by the United States Department of Agriculture in partnership with the Crop Trust. CWR Project funding will bring genebank staff from Azerbaijan, Costa Rica, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Portugal and Tunisia to join many others in Prague. Later in the year, a similar workshop will be held in Spanish in Colombia.

These initiatives stand to make all sorts of collections more efficient, but in particular they are part of the vision of comprehensive, accessible collections of crop wild relatives to fill global gaps in available biodiversity.

The CWR Project also contributes to ongoing work on Genesys, the online database that brings together information on more than 2.6 million accessions in hundreds of collections around the world. A ‘project view’ will be available in Genesys soon, which will show the status of the efforts of the project’s collecting partners worldwide.

“For wild relatives to be used, just like everything in genebanks, their seeds need to be available and managed in a way that is scientifically sound and sustainable,” says Dempewolf. “And that goes for the information too.” With ever-better tools to manage and share data, finding a crop’s wild relative in a genebank will soon be as easy as finding your own relatives on Facebook – with hopefully less drama.

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