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Nightshades: the paradoxical plants

3 Posts tagged with the diversity tag

So, I arrived safely in Cordoba – was met at the airport by Gloria, went to the herbarium to check a few plant localities for the trip, and then crashed! Today we set off bright and early to drive due south from Cordoba to Bahia Blanca, a distance of some 1000 kilometres.


In Argentina, the most important thing to pack is the yerba mate equipment! Yerba mate, or mate as it is often called, is made from the leaves of a holly relative – Ilex paraguariensis – that grows in the forests of the northeast of the country (and in Paraguay). The leaves are dried and crumbled and look a bit like tea. In Argentina, mate is always drunk with hot water and through a silver straw.


So what happens is that the cup is packed with leaves, hot water poured over, it is given to one person, who drinks it up through the straw, and then the process is repeated for each person in the car. Very convivial and I do love mate! In Paraguay, mate is drunk with cold water and is called terere.


Supplies for the long journey.


South from Cordoba we enter a huge agricultural region where fields of soybean, sorghum and maize cover the landscape. This region is one of the main soybean growing areas in Argentina – we saw various bits of graffiti saying (in essence) “Don’t let soybeans come and ruin our lives!” But soybean cultivation is there, and very extensive indeed. My colleagues say it is mostly exported to China.


The landscape is flat, flat, flat – and was very hot! We got out a few times to look for a still elusive species of the genus Jaborosa (Jaborosa bergii) – but no luck yet…..  it is a tiny little annual growing in exposed sand dunes so might have just come and gone before we got there. Lots of the vegetation was drying up. A few things bloomed though – like this prickly poppy – Argemone subfusiformis.


Argemone subfusiformis - a prickly poppy.


On and on we drove – until we reached what I thought of as real Argentine pampas – grassy habitat with cows and sheep. The road was absolutely straight, like a Roman road in England, but with lots of sun!!


All road trips end up with some disaster, and today was no exception. We had a flat tyre out in the pampas, about 141 kilometres from our destination in the middle of nowhere. Amazingly, this was the first time any of my compañeros had experienced a flat during field work – incredible! The institute maintains their vehicles very well! So Juan and Franco set to work changing the tyre, while Gloria and I looked for Solanaceae.


Flat tyre in the middle of rural Argentina - an apportunity for Solanaceae-hunting.


All’s well that ends well – and we arrived in Bahia Blanca (in the province of Buenos Aires and on the Atlantic) in time for supper at 11 pm or so. Tomorrow we will hug the coast looking for the elusive Jaborosa bergii again, plus a number of other treasures. I will not forget my first view of the pampas though, one can see forever, and if you imagine it right you can almost see the earth’s curvature, the horizon is so far away! Can’t wait for tomorrow’s excitement……..



Human beings depend upon a handful of flowering plants for 80% of their caloric intake - this in spite of the estimated approximately 400,000 species of flowering plants! In the face of discussions and concerns about global food security, agriculture's attention is turning to the wild species that are related to these staple crops for ideas about how to face massive environmental change.


For the past few days, I have been at a meeting convened by the Global Crop Diversity Trust ( and funded by a variety of organisations to discuss the challenges and opportunities wild relatives of crops represent. Now, my take on these plants is very firmly from the biodiversity end of the spectrum - and is pretty narrowly focused on Solanaceae, so these few days have been a real learning experience! The group includes people working on rice, maize and wheat, but also apples, barley, amaranthus, soybean, peanut - you name it, the crop is there!  The place is also fantastic - the Asilomar Conference Center on the Monterey peninsula in central California - what better place to come together and leave day-to-day cares behind to really talk about issues.



The view of the Pacific Ocean (very cold!!) from Asilomar State Park


What has surprised me is the degree to which the world of germplasm banks (sort of museums for the seed and plant collections used by plant breeders to improve our crop plants) is parallel to, but rarely intersecting with, my more familiar museum world. Databases are an issue, the avalanche of data coming from genomic approaches .... we all have these same challenges! We could do a lot to help one another, and to see how the challenges we face are actually the same at their core, with subtle differences depending on the specific circumstances.


I feel incredibly privledged to have been invited to be a part of this group - and realise how relevant the data we hold in our rich and global collections can be used to help other communities ....  however distant those might be.


Solanaceae - my nightshades - have as members many important vegetable crops - tomato, potato, pepper, eggplant (aubergine).... vegetables are often left out of the equation in terms of food security, where focus is on the big grain crops that provide our carbohydrates. But vegetables are key to a balanced diet - vitamins and nutrients are key to human health.  Vegetablse are also locally adapted and consumed, providing a unique opportunity for linking local and global issues, and for linking food prduction to biodiversity issues.


My brain is buzzing with new ideas and possible new projects for the future....  at museums we often get bogged down in the enormity of our task, describing wild diversity and enablign its conservation, such that the sheer massive usefulness of the informationfrom our collections we hold and curate for future generations to biology beyond the museum walls can slip into the background. Getting out into communities very different from our own can be scary (lots of words I don't know were bandied about these few days!!) but it is critical for realising the role the Museum can play - its big, and a bit frightening, and very different - but oh so exciting!.


Getting out is GOOD!!



Sunset over the Pacific.....


So it seems that everybody just duplicates everything… As Sandy wrote from Étape Eggplant in Montfavet, our last week’s focus on eggplants has revealed that duplicates are an issues not only in our database but in any collections such as world’s seed bank collections. So what is it with duplicates that make them an issue?


My role last week included gathering data on eggplant wild relatives, including both records of their natural distribution and currently available germplasm collections in seed banks. The idea of the gap analysis is to see whether eggplant crop wild relative (CWR) diversity is conserved in seed bank collections, and to identify where new collections should be made. It is a fascinating job – not only does it surprise you that such basic questions have not been looked into before, but the job also turns out to be more complex than you would expect at first.


It is easy to assume we (or somebody high up in one of the United Nations offices) know what is currently conserved in seed bank collections around the world. Seed banks are, after all, cornerstones of food security, banking seeds for the future if something would to happen. So somebody is counting what is being conserved across the globe, right? The answer is not that simple. For the ten or so most important food crops, specialised research institutes have been established to secure conservation and management of these important crops. For others, such as eggplant, the story is different.


World’s major seed banks, or genebanks as they are often called, all have their focus groups or focal areas. The bulk of these genebanks belong to CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which is an informal network of 16 international agricultural research centres. Together, these 16 institutions manage c. 600,000 agricultural seed samples – that is quite a lot! On top of these international giants, there are national or more regional genebanks, such as the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Plant Germplasm Service (NPGS), and the Dutch national seed bank at Wageningen University, the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands (CGR). Despite their different sizes and slightly different mandates, these seed banks all share the aim of preserving crop diversity.


Svalbard.jpgPicture of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: located in Spitsbergen, an island north of Norway, the Vault is storing seeds for the future.


The idea behind seed banking is to conserved diversity for future, short or long term, needs. These needs change through time. Currently, focus is being given to breeding crops to prepare them for the changing climates, as well as increased disease and environmental stress resistance. What needs to be analysed, however, is whether the currently conserved accessions in seed banks have potential in breeding efforts for these priority traits. Gap analysis, such as our project on eggplants and their wild relatives, have been developed to answer these questions and play an important role in understanding the potential of currently banked accessions for these priority breeding targets.


How does this all relate to duplications? Well from my short experience in this field, I have learnt that many of our global seed collections are actually duplicates. I have now worked on both tomato and eggplant CWR collections, downloading germplasm data from individual genebanks and then merging them to a single file to prepare them for the gap analysis. Seed banks exchange material, not only for diplomatic reasons but for the very important reason of securing their collections. Such duplications are called safety duplications, and are mandatory for large genebanks. This assures that if something would to happen due to political (wars do happen unfortunately) or environmental reasons (e.g. earthquakes), not all eggs were put in one basket.


What does this mean for food security? Well firstly it is great that if something would to happen, duplicates are safe somewhere around the world. But the other side of the coin is that although seemingly looking large at first sight, the actual number of seed collections conserved around the world is not that big after all. Conserving and preserving seeds in long term storage is costly, and this reduces the amount that can be kept in the banks.


My job this week continues to focus on pruning some of these duplicates out. For the sake of our gap analysis, we want to make sure we represent the global collections realistically. Some argue that duplicates can be viewed as unique collections because seeds have to be regenerated at regular time intervals and this process leads to slight differences between the duplicate collections. From the point of view of unique genetic resources that could be used for adapting our crops to climate change, we need truly unique collections that represent extreme environmental adaptations. Complex traits such as drought resistance or salt tolerance do not vary between duplicates – they evolve over hundreds if not thousands or even millions of years.