ARS Preserves Plants and Animals for Future
Needs By Kim
Kaplan May 15, 2009
When the Russian wheat aphid spread to the United States in 1986, all
of the country's commercial wheat was susceptible to it.
To find resistance to this insect that cost American wheat and barley
farmers billions of dollars in losses, Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
scientists turned to the agency's
Grains Collection in Aberdeen, Idaho, to screen more than 30,000 wheat
accessions and 24,000 barley accessions for resistance. The collection is part
of ARS' National Plant Germplasm
ARS researchers identified more than 300 resistant wheat germplasm
accessions and 40 promising barley lines as potential sources of resistance
genes, mostly from the ARS germplasm collection. Breeders began a "crash
program" using this germplasm to develop new varieties, and the crisis was
The NPGS preserves thousands of agronomically important plants and
their relatives in working collections around the country. Each collection
concentrates on specific types of plants. In addition, the
Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) in Fort Collins, Colo.,
keeps plant germplasm in long-term cryogenic storage.
The NPGS is an important heritage of plant diversity. It is also a
stockroom for tools to deal with problems like the mutation of a pathogen,
Ellis, a curator and plant physiologist at NCGRP.
Researchers from all over the world turn to the NPGS to solve disease
problems and also to expand plants' drought and temperature tolerance, adapt
plants to new growing conditions, and make them more productive, nutritious,
durable, or simply better tasting. The NPGS distributed more than 182,800 plant
samples worldwide in 2008.
Germplasm preservation is not an action that can wait until new genes
are needed. Global climate change, loss of habitats, and even war and political
instability threaten genetic variation in agriculture and in the wild.
Pathogens and pests continue to evolve. Protecting as wide an array as possible
of crop varieties and their wild relatives is the best insurance policy,
because it's impossible to tell ahead of time just what genes a plant may offer
that may one day be needed.
ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency in the
U.S. Department of Agriculture.