Secure storage of seeds critical at government vaults

Candice Gardner, research leader at the USDA North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station in Ames, Iowa, rolls apart two stacks of shelves housing maize seeds. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)
Candice Gardner, research leader at the USDA North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station in Ames, Iowa, rolls apart two stacks of shelves housing maize seeds. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant wheat had appeared on an Oregon field this spring, it didn’t take long for links to be drawn from that field to the USDA National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, a federal storehouse in Fort Collins, Colo.

Monsanto, creator of the so-called Roundup Resistant wheat seed, provided samples of the seed to the Fort Collins seed bank when it closed out that research program, Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher told Harvest in an email. The company also archived some of the seed in its own storage facilities in St. Louis, Mo.

Then, Helscher said, in 2011 Monsanto’s contract for the storage in Colorado was set to expire.

“As the material was old and we had no plans for its future use, we directed the [Agricultural Research Service] Colorado facility to destroy the inventories,” Helscher said. “In January of 2012 ARS confirmed that the seed had been destroyed (incinerated).”

That got us thinking about seed banks and how they work, so I headed over to the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station in Ames, Iowa, on a recent morning to take a tour and learn how things come and go from a seed bank, or vault.  

Candice Gardner, the researcher leader at the Ames center, came in from the fields where various seeds are propagated each year to replenish inventories, to show me around a rather drab-looking building on agricultural experiment station land at Iowa State University. I signed in. She used her employee key-card to open the internal doors. All the full timers, both Iowa State and federal employees, undergo a full security clearance, she said, and the student employees — who can number up to 70 during the academic year — must clear a background check for federal employment. One card scanner admits us into a laboratory and then Gardner scans her card again at the door along an inside wall. We enter a dark room that is kept at 4 degrees Celsius (39.2 degrees Farenheit) and 25 percent humidity. Precise climate control preserves the rows and rows of jars of seeds.

Even with their security clearances, “not everyone that works here has access [to the vault],” Gardner said. “They have to need access.”

The main function of the seed bank is to provide seeds for research and educational purposes to people around the world. Usually, the orders are fulfilled by mail. But Gardner said sometimes a researcher will need to actually see the many seed choices in order to make a selection.

“They can go in, they can look, and they can say `I want this, this and this,’” Gardner said. “But they will be escorted.”

This particular location houses some 53,000 unique accessions, Gardner said. Some are acquired through expeditions specifically aimed at collecting seed samples, some come through exchanges. For each of the many different plants, a variety of seeds gets stored. Maize, as you might imagine, is huge here in Iowa. But the shelves, which move along overhead tracks and are controlled by cranks similar to what you’d find in the stacks of a large library, also contain flax, spinach, pumpkin, coriander, hibiscus, melons, and more. For every type of plant, meticulously labeled jars reveal exactly what variety of seed rests within, including the geographic origin of the seed and when it was grown. Both the jars and lids have bar codes containing a plant introduction number, which is entered into a national database.

“As important as the seed is, the documentation is just as important,” Gardner said. Every year about 10 percent of the jars are manually checked to verify inventory numbers in the database, Gardner said. When a particular seed becomes low in quantity or viability, that type will be grown in the fields or the greenhouses here to increase the collection.

“It’s beautiful here the years they regenerate the hibiscus collection,” said Gardner, who came to this job after years in industry as a corn researcher.

Seed banks assist with the preservation and protection of plant biodiversity and in the case of the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Colorado, part of that mission is to curate a national genetics collection. At other locations, the focus is on soft fruits (Corvallis, Ore.) or ornamental plants (Columbus, Ohio) or arctic and subarctic plant genetics (Palmer, Alaska). But the Colorado location, in addition to its genetic storehouse, also serves as a backup for all the other locations.

“Duplication is a good thing, to some extent,” Gardner said, “because it provides safety in case of loss.”

The kind of loss she’s referring to can include the civil unrest and natural disasters that have three times torn Ethiopia’s seed stores from that nation's clutches, or the vandals in Afghanistan who tore through a collection there, dumped seeds on the ground and stole the jars.

“Every once in a while a call goes out to all the gene banks in the world asking for accessions that originated in a specific country,” Gardner said, to help replenish a lost collection. She estimated there are about 1,500 seed vaults worldwide.

Gardner and other USDA officials flatly rejected the notion that any GE wheat could have escaped from the Colorado seed vault. The USDA investigation into how that seed turned up in Oregon continues. Perhaps in time we’ll learn whether the GE wheat appearance ultimately speaks to shortcomings in seed storage, nefarious activity, or just the natural tenacity of even a genetically altered seed.