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Saving the World's Flowers: New Genebank Preserves Flower Germplasm

by Don Comis for Agricultural Research
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 growing collection.

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.

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 flowcrs 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 away--and 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. 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." Read more.

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