Preserving crop diversity

June 18, 2020

Today, there are more than 1,750 gene banks worldwide. In order to unlock their potential, a project aims to integrate the seed depots into an activated digital network.

The new EU research project AGENT (‘Activated GEnebank NeTwork’) aims to unlock the full potential of the biological material stored in gene banks around the globe by introducing a new international standard and an open digital infrastructure for the management of plant genetic resources. Targeting a better integration of existing genetic material into modern breeding programmes, the project will make an important contribution to global food security and the adaption of staple food crops to changing climatic conditions worldwide. The AGENT project’s objectives will be exemplified using barley and wheat, but the generated data management processes could be applied to other crop collections in the future. Over the next five years, the 19 project partners will receive EUR 7 million funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 framework programme.


While the first genebanks were established as early as the mid-1920s, today a total of about 7.4 million accessions are stored in more than 1,750 genebanks across the world to preserve the genetic diversity of crops for future generations. However, as procedures and standards for managing the material differ in each country, the true potential of the stored resources for breeding and research often remains unknown.

Improving access to collections

In order to provide access to this valuable information and enable the integration of existing plant genetic resources into modern breeding programmes, the new EU research project AGENT aims to establish a long-term network of actively cooperating genebanks and convert them from passive seed repositories into active digital resource centres -the activated genebank network(‘AGENT’).Through the collection and analysis of genetic and phenotypic information, coupled with the establishment of an IT infrastructure for linking them, the consortium seeks to establish a new international standard for genebank management and the verification and systematic genotyping of plant genetic resources.

European stock keeping

"Since the establishment of genebanks, large amounts of invaluable genetic resources have been exchanged between institutions around the world, leading to redundancies between the collections", says Prof. Dr. Nils Stein from the IPK in Gatersleben, Germany, who coordinates the project. "Within AGENT, we want to take stock of the resources currently available in EU regional genebanks and ensure that all countries can use these genetic resources in a complementary way. One of the real innovations of the AGENT project is that genebanks located in the different European climate zones will collect phenotypic data for a part of their genetic resources based on an evaluation network. This information will then be used to predict phenotypic values for the larger collections by integrating information based on the genomic fingerprints previously collected."

Role of Wageningen Research

In this project, Wageningen Research will participate in several activities. The Laboratory of Plant Breeding and the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands (CGN) will cooperate in the establishment of an IT infrastructure for the improved utilization of genotypic and phenotypic data. CGN will provide seeds from 500 wheat and 500 barley accessions for genotyping purposes and the development of a collection of Single Seed Descent lines. CGN will also contribute historical phenotypic data of its wheat and barley accessions for more detailed analysis within AGENT. Furthermore, CGN will play a leading role in capacity building activities, including the organization of training events and the implementation of a monitoring system for the improvement of genebank management operations.

Planning, crops and partners

The AGENT project, which is funded by the European Union with EUR 7 million, has a planned duration of five years. From May 2020 onwards, the partners will take the first joint steps towards fulfilling their ambitious project goals. The AGENT research team chose to work on wheat and barley as examples because of their global importance as staple food crops, but also because existing data sets for these plant species are already quite extensive. While the participating genebanks will start to evaluate and prepare their plant genetic resources, the bioinformatics teams will kick off the development of the database infrastructure to collect and integrate the data and make it available to the users.

So far, AGENT comprises 19 institutions including 14genebanks and research institutions with extensive expertise in the field of plant genetic resources, as well as five bioinformatics centres aiming to advance the international discourse on bioinformatics tools in the field of genebanks. In view of the project’s size and scope, its initiators are positive that further international partners will join the network in order to contribute to linking plant genetic resources and making the data more accessible to researchers and plant breeders worldwide.

Bringing together partners from 16 different countries, the AGENT consortium has kicked off its activities with a first virtual project meeting on 18 May 2020. During the videoconference, the work packages leaders outlined their main objectives and milestones and exchange about measures for the successful interconnection and interaction between the work packages. In order to encourage other gene banks to participate from the very start, special emphasis is put on the project’s outreach activities, including scientific conferences and workshops as well as targeted online communication measures.