Shortly after the uprising in Syria deteriorated into civil war, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) started facing major problems that threatened the survival of the research centre. Looters repeatedly attacked the main facility in Aleppo and stole computers and equipment before staff had to be evacuated to other ICARDA facilities in neighbouring countries.
Last week, ICARDA received the Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize for managing to save all the samples that were stored in its gene bank, one of the most important agricultural gene banks in the world.
““Over the years, ICARDA had managed to safety-duplicate most of its gene bank collections outside Syria. When the conflict there escalated, we sped up the duplication and now have secured 100% of the germplasm collection outside Syria,” said Mahmoud Solh, the director of ICARDA, in a statement released.
The gene bank at ICARDA’s Syrian research centre were particularly important because they carried samples of wild relatives of many of the crops that are widely cultivated today, such as bread wheat, barley, lentil and faba beans. These wild crops carry important genes that have allowed them to adapt to different habitats and challenges, such as droughts, pests and diseases. Domesticated plants may have lost these genes throughout the years, so the gene banks acts as reservoirs that breeders can use to breed new strains to combat new challenges as they arise.
The Fertile Crescent, where agriculture is thought to have originated, is rich with these unique wild crops. Scientists are worried these may be lost in the conflicts across the region. ICARDA had previously rescued and safety-duplicated germplasm collections from Afghanistan and Iraq when the wars there erupted. Now, along with the samples collected in Syria, these are being duplicated elsewhere, with 80% of ICARDA’s collection already duplicated in Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway.
“The efforts of Mahmoud Solh and his teams are valuable not only for plant breeders who are highly dependent on diversity to improve agricultural varieties but also for following generations who benefit from drought tolerant and disease and pest resistant crops” justifies Peter Harry Carstensen, president of the Gregor Mendel Foundation.