Saving the World's Flowers
David Tay, director of the
ARS Ornamental Plant Germplasm
Center, inspects some of the
more than 500 Pelargonium
accessions in the center's
collection. The Pelargonium
genus, in the geranium family,
comprises more than 250 species.
The fate of the gene pool for the asters and mums that grace many fall
gardens rests in seed coolers, greenhouses, and fields at Ohio State
University (OSU) in Columbus, backed up by the vaults of the National
Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Asters and mums are among the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center's (OPGC)
top-30 priority genera to collect, as are the poinsettias so popular
in December. New varieties of these and other flowers could result from
plant breeders' use of previously unavailable genes from the center's
The center recently marked its third anniversary on the university's campus. It boasts a modern, 6,000-square-foot office/laboratory complex and an 11,500-square-foot greenhouse. Center scientists search the world for valuable plant materials, including the collections of serious plant hobbyists.
Research assistants Eric Renze
(left) and Art Wells (center)
and director David Tay take
care of flowering plants in
OPGC's greenhouse. Genetic
material from the plants will
be preserved for the future.
As director of OPGC, David Tay is building a genebank to safeguard
the gene pool of flowering plants worldwide. It is one of the few specialized
genebanks for flowers in the world. The center collects seed, bulbs,
cuttings, and tissue, mainly from wild relatives of commercial species
and heirloom varieties that are no longer available.
Otherwise, seeds and other materials from varieties no longer on the
market would be thrown awayand with them, a portion of the flower
gene pool. Preservation of flower germplasm has become even more important
today, as concentrated breeding narrows the genetic diversity of many
popular flowers by focusing on aesthetics.
OPGC is a joint effort involving the Agricultural Research Service, OSU (through the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center), and the American floriculture industry. It was established because of increasing awareness over the past decade of both the threat of a dwindling gene pool and the importance of the floriculture industry as a growing sector of agriculture vital to the economies of many states, like Ohio. Nationally, floriculture is a $13-billion-a-year industry. Globally, it's about a $50-billion-a-year business. Yet relatively few resources have been devoted to protecting the gene pools of flowering plants. The germplasm center helps fill this void.
Curator Jennifer Ehrenberger
checks growth of a meristem
tissue culture, a technique
used to conserve certain
types of plants, like
OPGC is the newest addition to the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System,
which began in 1946, is managed by ARS, and maintains 25 genebanks across
the country. Its Fort Collins, Colorado, facility keeps duplicates of
every ARS plant collection in highly secure storage.
"It is critical to give breeders all possible options in the future," Tay says. "There may be genes that can help plants survive climate changes, drought, and pests, and other genes could have medicinal value for people and animals. We are working closely with OSU's College of Pharmacy to explore medicinal uses."
New Tissue Culture Lab
This year, Tay hired Jennifer Ehrenberger to curate a collection of vegetatively propagated plants. She spent her first months mainly contacting botanical gardens around the world to build up a network for exchanging plant materials. She also built a tissue culture laboratory and, since April, has been preserving and multiplying sterile cultures of daylilies, geraniums, and other flowers.
Curator Susan Stieve cleans
seeds from a snapdragon
(Antirrhinum) accession before
storing them in the genebank.
Susan Stieve is in her third year of curating flowers propagated by
seeds. She now has more than 1,500 plant accessions from around the
world. Stieve and Tay hosted the 2003 National Floriculture Forum, where
breeders and industry representatives shared information to improve
germplasm and breeding.
Tay intends to choose the best technologies for preserving plant materials, drawing on the experience of other members of the national germplasm system. He is also working with Charles R. Krause, who's in the ARS Application Technology Research Unit, in Wooster, Ohio, to see whether DNA markers used in crops such as tomato and rice can be adapted to identify flower species, starting with begonias and geraniums.
Zinnia and Marigold Seed Quality
Samuel Contreras, one of seven OSU graduate students working with OPGC,
is studying how temperature and water availability during seed production
affect the quality of zinnia and marigold seeds. "Seed quality
includes storability, which is especially important to OPGC," says
Contreras, a Fulbright scholar.
Contreras came to the center from the Pontifical Catholic University
of Chile, where he worked as a professor of seed biology and production.
"Chile is the sixth-largest exporter of seeds in the world,"
Contreras notes. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in seed biology.
"Chile is also one of many countries in the world that does not
have the resources for germplasm conservation, so OPGC provides a way
to save their native species' germplasm," Contreras says. "The
germplasm will probably be useful in the future to develop new, improved
varieties, which is a benefit to any country." Many of the major
flowers now grown in the United States came from other countries, so
their wild relatives are also found overseas.
"Not only does this research benefit OPGC and OSU, but it benefits
flower growers around the world-as well as the entire scientific community
involved in related work," Contreras says.
He hopes that foreign students like himself who study at the center
will encourage their countries to exchange plant material with it. "My
personal opinion is that there is a misunderstanding in some countries
that germplasm centers are trying to steal their national germplasm,"
Contreras says. "We can help change attitudes. Then we can expect
more collaboration between different countries and OPGC. At the same
time, those countries will take advantage of the benefits OPGC can give
them, such as diverse germplasm and technological help to improve flower
Comis, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Plant, Microbial, and Insect Genetic Resources,
Genomics, and Genetic Improvement, an ARS National Program (#301) described
on the World Wide Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
"Saving the World's Flowers" was published in the August 2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.