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As more people are born onto this great green planet, the demand for food grows. Feeding the nearly 8 billion of us here today is a challenge, not only because of the amount of food required but because the climate crisis is making growing conditions more difficult and unpredictable. To withstand droughts, heat, floods, and disease, crops need to be resilient, and that resiliency comes from genetic diversity.
Worldwide, scientists are working to store global crop diversity in gene banks, facilities where the seeds, roots, and vegetation needed to create more life are kept safe and viable. Just this week, the world’s largest repository for beans, cassava, and tropical forages opened near Cali, Colombia. Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez inaugurated the Future Seeds gene bank at the March 15 event.
The facility will not only safeguard important tropical crops but is also expected to serve as a living laboratory for some of the most advanced technologies in agricultural research, making use of artificial intelligence, drones, and robotics.
Future Seeds is one of 11 gene banks around the world run through CGIAR, a global research partnership focused on food security. This newest facility, managed by CGIAR’s Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), includes more than 37,000 samples of beans, 6,000 cassava samples, and 22,600 samples of tropical forages from more than 100 countries.
“The Future Seeds gene bank is a center of diversity for our time,” Ola Westengen, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and former coordinator at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, who is not involved with Future Seeds, told Mongabay. “This diversity is the basis for the future evolution of our crops.”
At its opening, Future Seeds announced a $17 million pledge from the Bezos Earth Fund that will be used to support the gene bank’s operations and research into the use of plant roots to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change.
In addition to the physical roots and seeds, the project also hosts a massive digital gene bank, where researchers can access plants’ DNA sequence information. The team is using this database, along with AI, to identify regions of the plants’ genome that may be linked to desirable traits such as drought tolerance or pest resistance. In some cases, genes that have been turned off may be turned on again, Marcela Santaella, the gene bank’s operations manager, told Mongabay.
AI will also be employed to help scientists find gaps in the collections and predict habitats where important crop biodiversity is yet to be found.
“[Future Seeds] is constantly training and developing new ways to enhance and protect biodiversity for better diets, resilient incomes and a healthier environment,” Santaella said in a press release.
“The collections are of global importance and this new facility will greatly increase the possibilities for improving the crops held,” Elinor Breman, senior research leader in seed conservation at the Millennium Seed Bank run by the U.K.’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who is not involved with the new gene bank, told Mongabay. “I hope that some of the AI techniques being developed at Future Seeds will eventually be adaptable for use with wild species.”
Unlike digital files, seeds in a vault cannot be stored and forgotten. Collections in the vaults must be regularly updated with fresh, viable samples grown in the field. Around 100 people work at the facility, with 50% working in fields to grow plants and collect new material.
“In some of the stories about the seed vault, you get the impression that this is like a time capsule,” Westengen said in a 2020 interview with Mongabay, “but the seed vault only makes sense as part of a kind of dynamic system for conserving and keeping the seeds viable … all seeds need to be regenerated and grown out in an environment where they will maintain their genetic integrity. And that’s a much more demanding job.”
The stored crops hold a treasure trove of useful traits and varieties within their genetic codes, but accessing and learning about them can be very slow going. To do so, plants have to be grown in the field and their traits tracked by researchers, one leaf, pod and stem at a time.
To speed up this process, Future Seeds has partnered with Google’s Project Mineral, a team at X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory, on a new kind of rover. Nicknamed “Don Roverto,” the rovers make quick work of this process, rapidly counting, measuring, and assessing plant traits in the field. The new technology accelerates the collection and analysis of the kinds of data plant breeders need to create better crop varieties.