This article first appeared in WSU’s Universe magazine in Spring 2000.
OF THE WORLD’S MOST important food crops, none is native to the United States. Even at the beginning of European colonization, many of the agricultural crops raised by the Natives had been introduced. As early Americans migrated north out of Mexico and further south, they carried with them seeds of maize, beans, tobacco, cotton, and squash. Actual food crops native to North America are pretty much limited to sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke (which is actually a sunflower), and a few nuts and small fruits.
So it was that American agriculture all came from elsewhere. And so it is that the tradition of seed collecting runs through our history.
Following that tradition, Benjamin Franklin brought home from his travels rhubarb, upland rice, and broomcorn. In England he ran across a plant called the Chinese garavance, which we now call “soybean.” While minister to France, Thomas Jefferson sent annual shipments of seeds home from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, including rice from China, Egypt, Palestine, and Africa. In a reflective essay in which he considered what he had contributed to the young United States, Jefferson concluded, “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add an useful plant to its culture.”
By 1819, seed collecting had the endorsement of the federal government; but it wasn’t until 1898 that the USDA created a Section of Seed and Plant Introduction, initiating active germplasm exploration. A line of Russian cabbage was assigned the first Plant Introduction accession number. Today those holdings, kept by what is now known as the National Plant Germplasm System, number more than 438,000 active accessions.
Caring for the nation’s germplasm, which is any part of the plant that can reproduce, is both a heady and difficult undertaking. Though enormous in ambition, the undertaking began modestly, with seeds stored in mason jars and root cellars and scrounged office space.
Finally, the need for centralized facilities for seed storage and maintenance became desperate. Irreplaceable germplasm was being lost. Soon after World War II, Congress authorized the creation of four regional stations: Pullman, Washington; Ames, Iowa; Geneva, New York; and Griffin, Georgia.
In the mid-1950s, Congress authorized funding for a permanent storage facility. The National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, now functions as the hub of the system. It is the preserve of last resort. It duplicates the holdings of the regional stations, sequestering the germplasm in huge freezers and supercold liquid nitrogen.
If the NSSL is germplasm’s Fort Knox, the regional stations are more … well, gardens for seed production and research. They are the working collections. No matter how well germplasm is preserved, it eventually will lose its vitality. So periodically, the germplasm must be pulled out of storage and planted.
The germplasm is divided up amongst the regional stations, in general depending on where it grows best. Pullman has the safflower, while Corvallis, Oregon, has the blackberries. Geneva, New York, has the cool season grapes, while Davis, California, has the warm season grapes. Miami has the sugarcane, but Hilo has the pineapple. Ames, Iowa, has the spinach, but Pullman has most of the lettuces.
In all, the Pullman station maintains nearly 70,000 different plant accessions. This includes 7,227 lines of alfalfa, 4,607 lines of chickpeas, 2,841 of lentils. (A line is essentially a subspecies.) Smaller collections include wild rye, orchardgrass, vetch, garlic, poppies, bluegrass—and 1,083 lines of lupine.
The Plant Introduction Station is far more than just an archive. Staff members search the seeds for new genetic traits—winter hardiness, drought tolerance, salt tolerance, early maturity, disease and insect resistance.
The value of the collection’s germplasm lies in its genetic variability. Wild ancestors and relatives of domesticated plants are the source from which domestic varieties are drawn and improved. Ideally, this bank of diversity would continue to grow where it always has—in the wild. But the wild landscape necessary for maintaining that diversity continues to shrink.
As genetic diversity has disappeared from the wild, it has also fled the farm. Until recently, maintaining genetic diversity of agricultural species required little attention. Farmers saved their own seed and exchanged it with their neighbors. Through careful selection of seeds or breeding stock, they developed landraces of both plants and livestock adapted to the local environment. But with the advent of high-yield hybrids and industrial techniques, seed became not only more productive, but genetically narrower.
Of course, simply maintaining a bank of genetic diversity will not help out the under-diversified crops in the field. Plant breeders must introduce the diversity into production. They do. According to seed manager Dave Stout, the Pullman Plant Introduction Station sends out as many as 22,000 seed packets per year.
Germplasm is constantly being added to the collection—more than 1,000 accessions a year. Stout says that approximately 40 percent of these new accessions are donated by plant scientists outside the system or represent a new development. The other 60 percent are collected by Plant Introduction scientists who go on collecting expeditions worldwide.
Germplasm held within the system comes from all over the world. Research leader Rich Hannan collected in Bulgaria a couple of years ago, looking for wild legumes. He has also collected in Russia, Colombia, and Panama. This year, he travels to Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China, searching for new Alliums (garlic and onions), carrots, wild peas and lentils, forage legumes, and wild wheat and barley. WSU Crop and Soil faculty members Fred Muehlbauer and Tom Lumpkin have also collected extensively for Plant Introduction, as has USDA researcher Mark Stannard.
Maintaining and growing out all this germplasm is expensive. For a variety of reasons, including cost-savings, Plant Introduction scientists are looking instead at preserving in situ, in the wild. Barbara Hellier, the horticultural crops curator, is working at maintaining wild Alliums in the wild. Sixty species of wild Alliums are known in North America, and 500 worldwide. Through specimens and records in WSU’s Ownbey Herbarium and through tips from Forest Service botanists, Hellier has located varied populations of wild alliums in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.
In spite of its vital mission, the germplasm system is continually slighted in the national budget. The whole system currently operates on a $22 million budget—what Hannan, echoing George Brown, refers to as “budget dust.” For about half the price of one F16 and spare parts, the system tries to maintain our genetic security. Why the disparity?
“We’re at the beginning of the process,” says Hannan. Germplasm is the raw material. You need it to get bread with enough gluten, wine that tastes good, lettuce that’s not bitter. But PI number 000000 is not listed as an ingredient on the can of beans you pick up at the grocery. If it doesn’t turn an immediate profit, or fulfill an immediate and obvious need, who needs it?
Finally, the Germplasm System might just be a little too altruistic for a killer economy. Its germplasm is distributed free. Germplasm containing drought resistance might be worth billions in a future overpopulated Earth, but who’s going to value something that you can’t put a price tag on right now?
Regardless, as the Plant Introduction Station celebrates its 50th year, Hannan sees an increasing need for new germplasm, not just for resistance and vitality. As agriculture follows a trend toward organic production, plant breeders will need a whole new range of germplasm. He also cites an apparent increase in sophistication among Americans in regard to taste. Maybe consumers will start demanding not “a Flavr Savr tomato that will store forever, but a tomato that actually tastes good,” he says. “Maybe people will start discerning the difference between ho-hum all-purpose California garlic and an exotic strain from Belarus.”
If so, the Pullman Plant Introduction Station cares for 195 lines.