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Tomatoes. Link to photo information
ARS researchers in Geneva have found greater genetic variety in cultivated tomatoes—like these Ohio Processing tomatoes, developed by ARS breeders in Maryland—than was previously thought to exist. Click the image for more information about it.

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Preserving Genetic Variety of Valuable Specialty Crops

By Laura McGinnis
October 10, 2007

What’s a “specialty crop”? It can be any of hundreds of fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, nursery plants and other crops that add variety to the diet and beauty to the garden.

To protect all U.S. crops—and provide material for developing new and better ones—the Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) maintains genetic material, or germplasm, at more than 20 genebanks around the country. Many NPGS locations conserve germplasm of specialty crops.

In the Plant Genetic Resources Unit at Geneva, N.Y., ARS scientists identified previously unknown genetic variations in tomato, a specialty crop that nets about $2 billion dollars annually. Molecular biologist Joanne Labate, computational biologist Angela Baldo and geneticist Larry Robertson also found greater genetic variety than commonly believed to exist in tomato. Understanding how to harness this variation could help breeders improve the U.S. tomato crop.

Research leader Philip Forsline has coordinated the addition of a large gene pool of wild apple germplasm to the Geneva unit. The germplasm, which was collected in Central Asia, represents the main center of origin for commercial apples, and may contribute to new cultivars.

NPGS research also contributes to domestic and international plant preservation. At the Beltsville, Md., Woody Landscape Plant Germplasm Repository, part of the U.S. National Arboretum's Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit, curator Kevin Conrad and his colleagues are collecting and conserving woody landscape tree and shrub accessions as part of a national effort to preserve genetic diversity.

At the ARS National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) in Corvallis, Ore., curator Kim Hummer and other researchers have been working with international organizations to develop a global conservation strategy for strawberry genetic resources. In 2006, the NCGR hosted an international panel to develop protocols for conservation standards. These efforts could result in greater protection for wild species and increased accessibility to genetic resources.

These and similar programs at NPGS locations throughout the country help ensure the strength of U.S. agricultural crops.

Read more about plant preservation research in the October 2007 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.