Growing problem in seed banks

By Debora MacKenzie MANY of the world’s ancient crop seeds are being contaminated or lost by the seed banks that are charged with preserving them, research by German scientists suggests. Adolf Steiner and colleagues at the University of Hohenheim examined samples of oats dating from 1831. The oats had been recovered in 1956 from a demolished theatre in Nuremberg and stored at seed banks in Germany and Austria. Since then they have been grown, harvested and returned to storage several times, as seeds must be to maintain their viability. The scientists analysed the proteins in samples of the oats from each bank. They found that most of the 28 samples had one of two patterns of proteins, showing that the original oats belonged to two strains. But 12 of them had unusual protein patterns, implying they had been contaminated either by oats of the other Nuremberg strain, or by foreign oats. The losses, says Steiner, were “simply due to carelessness during harvesting or handling”. The team is finding similar contamination in samples of spelt wheat, once the most common grain in Europe which almost disappeared this century. Such old varieties, says Steiner, “are vital for breeding new crops”. He fears that the main reason for the disruption is a lack of funding,
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