Climate change

How can crops that are not grown from seeds be conserved in gene banks?

Plant genebanks, such as the USDA-ARS National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), conserve vast collections of crops. They are saved for use in breeding and research programs. These collections are primarily conserved as seeds. The genetic diversity of wild species (crop wild relatives) of some fruit crops, such as apples, can be stored in gene banks as seeds. This ensures that researchers can turn to the wild varieties to help with breeding programs.

plant tissue in tubes
Some plants are better preserved as frozen tissue. Credit: Shelley Jansky.

But, many varieties of crops are best saved in other ways besides seeds. Collections of fruit tree varieties are maintained as field or greenhouse collections in gene banks. These fruit variety collections are conserved as actively growing plants. Seeds of fruit trees are the result of pollinations from another apple tree’s pollen. Thus, the seeds of the tree are not identical to that of the mother tree and will likely not produce desirable fruit.  To maintain the genetic identity of a fruit tree variety, fruit trees are propagated from maternal tissues, such as by grafting or by rooted cuttings. This preserves the genetic heritage we value.

Often, seed crops can be successfully placed into long-term reduced-temperature storage for safe-keeping. The gene bank collections of fruit trees that are maintained entirely in fields or greenhouses are vulnerable to adverse environments, pests, and diseases.

pieces of apple twigs
Dormant bud sections of apple twigs prior to cryopreservation. Many apples are best stored as frozen tissue because apples are often hybrids – so the fruit isn’t genetically identical to the trees. Credit: Gayle Volk.

Researchers developed methods to store non-seed tissues, such as dormant buds or growing shoot tips, of fruit varieties. These are harvested and processed so that they can be placed into liquid nitrogen, which is around -330°F! This is called cryopreservation, and it is successful for long-term storage.

When needed, the dormant buds or shoot tips are removed from liquid nitrogen and allowed to warm. They can then be grown into plants that are identical to the original cultivars.

Cryopreservation isn’t as simple as nipping a bud or shoot and freezing it. Successful cryopreservation requires that water be removed from the living cells to prevent ice crystals from forming in the frozen state.

In some cases, such as for dormant apple buds, the plant tissues can be dehydrated, packaged, and then slow-cooled to about -22oF prior to liquid nitrogen exposure. For recovery, the dormant buds are warmed, rehydrated, and grafted onto rootstocks.

plant in test tube
Plants that are cryopreserved are warmed slowly before being used for research. Credit: Peggy Greb.

For other less cold-hardy fruit crops, such as citrus, researchers use shoot tips which are the growing parts of branches, instead of dormant buds. These small (1 mm) shoot tips are then treated with solutions that protect cells and remove water. Then, they are exposed to liquid nitrogen. For recovery, the shoot tips are warmed, rinsed, rehydrated, and grown using sterile tissue culture techniques.

These methods are actively being used at the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado to cryopreserve priceless field and greenhouse collections of fruit cultivars. These cryopreserved collections can be safely preserved for the long-term, and then recovered and grown into trees that are identical to the original varieties when they are needed.

Answered by Gayle Volk, US Department of Agriculture

This blog is part of Crop Science Society of America’s Seed Week celebration. Why celebrate seeds? Anyone who plants a seed is investing in hope. That’s one of the attractions of seeds. For the gardener, it could be hope for a beautiful flower, or perhaps a delicious zucchini squash. For our farmers, seeds are the hope of this year’s yields of produce, cash crops or forage. No matter the size or shape of the seed, they all can bring forth new life. At Crop Science Society of America, we hold seeds in very high regard. Please visit our Seed Week webpage for news stories, blogs and more information about seed research and facts.

Visit our main Crop Wild Relative Page to see all our blogs, stories, a video – and even deeper academic research! To read about how flax could become perennial using crop wild relatives here. Read about crop wild relatives of chili peppers here.

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

7 replies »

  1. Very interesting, some plants can be conserved in cryopreservation for a long time, at least in genebanks. What about in situ conservation for wild relatives? Is it a good practice for conserving seeds also? and people and communities are devoted to it. Thanks.
    PD. Are there some resources like this in spanish? Thanks again

  2. In situ (either on-farm or in the wild) conservation plays a critical role in preserving cultivars as well as wild species. I believe the Crop Trust has some in situ conservation efforts for crop wild relatives. We are in the process of developing training content relating to genebanking, crop wild relatives, and plant breeding. It’s still early in the process, but some of our content is being translated to Spanish. We’re also building a website through GRIN-Global that will provide links to training materials. Feel free to email me for more info. Gayle Volk

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