The famous seed vault in Spitsbergen and national gene banks retain hundreds of thousands of seed samples to preserve old varieties of crop plants and the genetic diversity associated with them. Are these seed banks gold mines or seed cemeteries?
Researchers around the globe are investigating whether retained samples contain genes that have been lost through breeding which could be beneficial in counteracting climate change. A research team led by Chris-Carolin Schön, Professor of Plant Breeding at the TUM, is now presenting a solution to harness the genetic potential of old varieties, so-called landraces.
Have good plant characteristics been lost through breeding?
Since the 1960s, maize has been grown in Europe's fields mainly in the form of hybrid varieties. Hybrid varieties are developed through a specific breeding scheme and, for example are "trimmed" for high yield per hectare or low susceptibility to pests. In order to breed the best variety, a kit of characteristics is needed that could be relevant both today and in the future. Thus, genetic diversity is the basic prerequisite for breeding improved crop plants.
Hybrid varieties, however, carry only a small selection of traits compared to old varieties, the landraces. The question then is whether in addition to undesirable traits, beneficial traits have been lost in the course of many breeding generations. Therefore, the call for landraces has recently been revived, as they are characterized by high biodiversity and are considered a natural source of new genetic variation for breeding. Genetic variation reflects different variants of a gene and can be recognized by differences in the plant's appearance.