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Agricultural Research Service

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Celebrating 50 Years of Genetic Preservation

By Dawn Lyons-Johnson
August 26, 1998

The ear of corn is so tiny it's called "ladyfinger," but its genetic contribution to corn growers--resistance to Northern corn leaf blight--is enormous. This tiny ear of corn is just one example of the importance of maintaining genetic diversity in crops through germplasm preservation.

The North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station of the Agricultural Research Service at Ames, Iowa, is one of a quartet of USDA facilities dedicated to preserving the genetic diversity of crop plants and their wild ancestors. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Ames station is the national repository for corn germplasm, containing some 15,000 samples. It also houses the national sunflower germplasm collection and germplasm for a wide array of fruits and vegetables, from cantaloupe, honeydew melon and muskmelon to carrots and zucchini. The station also keeps germplasm for speciality crops like mustard, herbs like basil and dill, and exotic vegetables like amaranth.

Plant germplasm is a general term that includes all plant parts that can generate a new plant. Depending on the species, that could be a leaf, a piece of stem, a pollen grain or even a few cells that can be cultured to produce a new plantlet. Germplasm contains all the genetic information necessary for plant breeders to develop valuable new varieties.

The Ames station has more than 44,000 different samples of plant germplasm stored in climate-controlled units or actually growing on the station's grounds. The facility not only stores germplasm, but also provides it to scientists and plant breeders around the world. Each year, the staff sends out as many as 15,000 samples of seed, plant parts and live plants to other government labs, private industry and schools at no charge.

Scientific contact: Mark P. Widrlechner, acting research leader, ARS North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station, Ames, Iowa 50011-1170; phone: 515-294-3511; fax: 515-294-1903; email:

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