Station activities are organized to support the acquisition, documentation, regeneration, health, characterization, evaluation, distribution and enhancement of the plant genetic resources held in the NCRPIS collections. Nearly 50,000 accessions of germplasm are maintained at the NCRPIS, representing nearly 320 genera and over 1700 infrageneric taxa. Approximately 20-25% of the collection holdings are distributed to researchers each year. Approximately 76% of the NCRPIS collections are currently backed up at the National Center for Germplasm Resource Preservation (NCGRP) in Ft. Collins, CO.
These accessions are maintained as a shield against genetic vulnerability to the dynamic challenges of biotic and abiotic stresses and as a source of new crops and products to help sustain the vitality of American agriculture, particularly for the NCR. The research community also relies on these accessions to meet diverse needs for well-characterized germplasm.
The NCRPIS provides germplasm and data promptly, enabling their rapid mobilization in response to national emergencies or for long-range, high-risk research, and for repatriation to the country of origin upon request. The NCRPIS distributes about 20,000 seed packets and vegetative propagules annually. Of these samples, about 40% are distributed to international requestors. Performance reports from scientists clearly document the frequent utilization of our germplasm and demonstrate the extent of its valuable contribution to all aspects of U.S. and foreign agriculture. Because of advances in plant biotechnology and molecular genetics that enable the direct introduction of genes from distantly-related plants into crops, even wild species may serve as increasingly important reservoirs of genes for crop improvement.
The economic value of the germplasm and associated data is difficult to estimate due to the complexity of its utilization, now and in the future. Thorough characterization, evaluation and documentation of germplasm collections increase their value to researchers because that information enables targeting of research resources towards those materials most likely to hold traits/genes of interest.
Germplasm utilization is size and scale neutral, as germplasm and associated data are employed by requestors as diverse as multinational corporations, university plant scientists, educators, family-owned nurseries, seed companies and non-governmental organizations. Evaluation and preliminary plant breeding efforts with crops such as amaranth, cuphea, various mints, cucurbits, maize, and oilseed brassicas can help diversify and enhance the profitability of family and small farms. Genes from germplasm can increase the value of a diverse range of field and vegetable crops, which support a biobased economy, including food, feed, fiber, and novel sources of key compounds for nutritional, industrial and medicinal use applications.
To fully regenerate the NCRPIS collections from backup samples or reacquisitions would cost approximately $30,000,000 in 2005 dollars, if reacquisition was possible. To regenerate the fraction distributed to requestors each year, 20-25% of the collection holdings, approximately $6,000,000 is required.
Pollination is accomplished by hand in the case of maize and cultivated sunflowers, and with the use of pollinator insects such as honeybees, bumblebees, alfalfa leafcutter bees, Osmia bees and flies in screened cages, in both the field and greenhouse.
Production, storage and distribution of healthy, viable propagules are facilitated by a phytosanitary program which emphasizes detection and diagnosis by disease organisms by the pathology research staff, good sanitation practices implemented by the curatorial staff, and periodic viability testing.
Plant genetic resources (also termed germplasm) are, with water, air, soil, and crop management practices, fundamental to the success of agricultural production systems that sustain humanity, now and in the future. Relatively few crops (sunflower, certain pines, various nuts and berries) of commercial importance are native to the United States. Today’s agricultural systems are based primarily on crops that were domesticated and developed by ancient peoples. Consequently, the origin and development of the U.S. system of renewable resource production has been highly dependent on plant germplasm introduced from other countries.
Acquisition and preservation of this germplasm for the future benefit of sustainable agricultural production continues to be an urgent matter. Crop improvement and diversification may depend on more recently acquired genes found in germplasm collections. Recent advances in genomics, genetics and bioinformatic capabilities are enabling researchers to realize the potential value that collections of landraces, cultivars, and their wild and weedy relatives can contribute. Without modern technological tools, transfer of these traits/genes of interest would be very difficult or impossible.
Much potentially valuable germplasm no longer exists in its native habitat or is rapidly disappearing as rural development, overgrazing, urbanization, population pressure, climate change, disasters caused by nature or the actions of man, and implementation of modern agricultural methods, including the replacement of older cultivars by improved varieties, damage or destroy native habitats and plant populations.
Changes in production goals and practices (e.g. reduced tillage, reduced chemical inputs, higher density planting) place new demands on crops. Resistance or tolerance to abiotic stress (e.g. water, heat, or nutrition) is a key limiting factor to worldwide agricultural production. As the water resources available for agriculture become increasingly limited, the importance and value of genetic sources of abiotic stress resistance increases. As practices such as reduced tillage, reduced chemical inputs, higher density planting populations, and water and fertility management change, the crop genetics used by growers around the world must be able to respond and perform well. Biotic stress agents such as pathogens and pests continuously evolve in response to their interaction with crop genetics in the field and production practices, thus their economic importance can shift with respect to time and geographic locale.
Germplasm continues to be integral to developing more efficient and sustainable crop production systems that maximize the protection of biodiversity, natural habitats, and other factors contributing to environmental quality.
Nutritional crop use examples include sunflowers with high-oleic or mid-oleic fatty acids, red-colored carrots high in antioxidants, and corn with specific endosperm traits for snack foods. Amaranthus is an established crop outside of the U.S., but is considered a "new" grain and vegetable crop for the U.S.; it is also utilized by weed scientists studying chemical control efficacy and the development of herbicide resistance. Germplasm holdings with medicinal /nutriceutical applications include Echinacea (purple coneflower), Hypericum (St. John’s wort), Actaea racemosa (black cohosh), and others. The oilseed Brassica collection provides genetic resources for industrial and food oil crops, improved human nutrition, and for remediation of contaminated environments.
The maize collection provides not only for nutritional and feed uses, but also for the development of biofuels such as ethanol, and the industrial chemical furfural. Germplasm sources of industrial chemicals held include Crambe, Calendula, and Euphorbia, and Cuphea as a source of fatty acids for soaps, detergents, surfactants and cosmetics.
Conserving soil and water and combating their pollution (especially by enigmatic non-point sources) have become increasingly important in the NCR. Accessions of many of the species commonly planted for roadside stabilization and shelter belts (e.g., willows) are part of the NCRPIS collections. Crown vetch (Securigera) has been widely planted along interstate highways to prevent soil erosion. Other legumes (Melilotus, Dalea, Galega) are well adapted to the NCR where they may also assist soil conservation. Alyssum murale and Brassica juncea are of interest in phytoremediation because of their ability to extract heavy metals from contaminated soils. The NCRPIS collections have furnished genes for host-plant resistance of a variety of crops (maize, sunflower, brassica etc.) to biotic and abiotic stresses which have the potential of decreasing pollution by tangibly reducing the amount of water, fertilizer, and pesticide inputs applied to NCR farmland.
The NCR's highly variable climates, often severe winters and common grassland soils severely restrict the variety of landscape plants adapted to the region. The NCR also includes many expanding metropolitan areas with their own constraints on the performance of landscape plantings. New landscape plants are evaluated for ornamental merit at sites across the diverse environments as part of the NC-7 Ornamental Trials, the longest running ornamental trial program in the U.S.
The NCRPIS plays a vital role in enhancing communication and information management capabilities regarding plant genetic resource issues among the germplasm user community, and other germplasm management sites in the NPGS (genetic stock collections, crop-specific collections). These information exchanges facilitate germplasm conservation and management efforts, and help rapidly identify germplasm with particular agronomic, horticultural or other merits. This in turn enhances the ability of plant scientists, germplasm managers, and plant breeders to respond rapidly to novel user needs and demands.
Without the NPGS’s germplasm, associated data, and research, the research programs of thousands of scientists and plant breeders throughout the world would be impeded, if not totally precluded. The world’s food supply would be less diverse, more vulnerable to epidemics, and less able to adapt to changing national and international environmental and regulatory concerns, or to global change in climates and commercial markets. Several Congressionally-mandated or international responsibilities would be unfulfilled. Domestic and international germplasm exchange would be significantly impeded.
In summary, the germplasm at the NCRPIS has been and will be a key component of more efficient agricultural systems which maximize yields of food, fiber, ornamental, nutritional, nutriceutical, medicinal and industrial products needed for a biobased economy while striving to minimize chemical inputs, water and soil depletion and contamination, and production and processing costs. Such systems maximize the well-being of society and the world’s resources, provide profits to producers, security of supply, price stability, market competitiveness, and minimize losses due to genetic vulnerability.