Gene bank prepares for major data flood

The Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands (CGN) is working on a new search engine that enables plant breeders to quickly find the right genes in its huge gene bank collection.

The CGN has a particular emphasis on collecting and preserving a collection of vegetable seeds, as well as preserving rare breeds of farm animals. The centre has 24,000 old and new varieties and their wild relatives stored in 250,000 seed packages.

The work of most gene banks has hardly changed over the past 40 years, with the main task being the conservation of germplasm collections and keeping the seeds accessible to plant breeders. To keep the seed viability up to standard, gene banks regularly sow the seeds, cultivate the plants and harvest new seeds for freezing. The gene bank describes the characteristics for each ‘accession’, along with the location where it was collected and other information about its origin and identity.

Although the revolution in genomics has yet to fully reach the gene banks, scientist Theo van Hintum from CGN expects that this is about to change. “We are expecting a huge flood of data from the genomic research of the crops we manage.” The first major project in which the two worlds have come together is a research project co-financed by Dutch breeding companies focused on determining the genetic data of 500 accessions of lettuce from the CGN collection.

Although this data is very important to breeders, van Hintum says that the project mainly serves as an exercise for similar projects in the future. “We are working on a system that will make the genome data accessible to such an extent that it can be searched quickly for possible interesting characteristics.” Within this framework CGN is already working with the data of 150 tomato varieties in cooperation with the Business Unit Plant Breeding, but the lettuce data will allow the system to really take shape.

Van Hintum expects a significant increase in the value of the collection as the visible characteristics of plants do not always show the genetic treasures concealed within. “A study published several years ago illustrated how a wild tomato species with very small fruits contained genes which increased fruit size for commercial tomato varieties. This can only be predicted once the genetic code of this material has been described and understood. We expect genomics to considerably enhance the value of our collection.”