The genetic base of the world’s food crops is shrinking as genetic resources are being lost to changing tastes, industrialization, urbanization, mechanization of farming, and commercialization of agriculture. Conservation and use of biodiversity is central to research on the improvement of food crops and the development of sustainable systems of farming for increased food production. Genetic and functional diversity of plants are the building blocks of improved agricultural performance and production. Genetic diversity can introduce useful new traits and create new heterotic combinations. These in turn can contribute to more crop yields and enhance adaptability of finished varieties by providing appropriate and useful genetic stocks for breeding programs.
The wild relatives of crop plants are a reservoir of untapped, potentially important genes for crop improvement. This is especially true of genes for tolerance or resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses, but also for genes for other important adaptive traits. However, wild relatives are underrepresented in IITA collections. For the future, there is a need to collect, conserve, evaluate, characterize, document, and distribute plant genetic resources of a wide range of crops and their wild relatives. There is also a need to conserve and enhance the contribution of neglected and underutilized genetic resources to enhance the future income, health, and nutrition of the poor.
In the short term, germplasm of vegetatively propagated crops is usually maintained as tubers, roots, bulbils, cuttings, and in the field as living collections. Maintaining germplasm collections in the field is expensive in terms of labor, land, and space, and there is also the risk of losing valuable genetic material to pest attack and other unforeseen problems. In vitro reduced-growth storage methods being used routinely at IITA offer the solution for short- to medium-term storage of germplasm of yams, cassava, plantain, and banana. However, there are issues relating to genetic stability,
risk of contamination, or accidental loss. Cultures require routine subculturing; there is a sizeable workload in maintaining a large collection. Cryopreservation could increase considerably the efficiency of the long-term conservation of IITA’s vegetatively propagated germplasm.
Advances in biotechnology enable molecular marker-aided analyses of genetic diversity to aid management of ex situ germplasm collections, planning for conservation of biodiversity and guiding selection of accessions for use by breeders. Germplasm is of greatest value to plant breeders and other scientists when they are characterized and evaluated. The recent advances also provide molecular tools and techniques for detecting pathogens and for mining genes from the collections. Use of new diagnostic tools, particularly for viruses, is of high priority for ensuring efficiency and confidence of indexing of germplasm for international distribution.
The key objectives of this project are the efficient long-term conservation and use of genetic resources of staple and underutilized crop species, and increased efficiency and effectiveness of research aimed at exploiting their potential.