Domesticating horsegram

by Luigi Guarino on July 19, 2017

The indefatigable Dorian Fuller has been even less fatigable than usual lately, with a couple of papers in the past few weeks on the history of the horsegram, Macrotyloma uniflorum. The first is a general review of the geographical, linguistic and archaeological evidence for the origins of the crop. They point to a long history in India and at least two separate domestications there.

Fig. 7. Map of distribution of wild populations of horsegram based upon data from Table 5 (and Table S4), and including M. sar-garhwalensis.

The second is a much deeper dive into the history of domestication, using high resolution x-ray computed tomography with a synchrotron to measure non-destructively the decrease in seed coat thickness with time in archaeological remains of domesticated material. A thin seed coat is thought to be related to loss of dormancy, and hence part of the domestication syndrome. It had been suggested that rare non-dormant variants might have been selected during domestication, but the evidence from horsegram is that even the thick-coated, and therefore presumably still dormant, material was domesticated.

Which is all very interesting, but what I want to leave you with is a little quiz. Given that Kersting’s groundnut is now also in Macrotyloma, as M. geocarpum (Harms) Maréchal & Baudet, how many other con-generic species can you think of that were domesticated on separate continents? Apart from the two Oryza species, of course.


Measuring the success of botanical gardens

by Luigi Guarino on July 18, 2017

Good to see Botanic Gardens Conservation International first technical review online, entitled Defining the botanic garden, and how to measure performance and success.

The definition part turns out to be a compendium of “criteria useful in defining a botanic garden.” The performance measures are rather long lists of indicators in the following areas, ranked by the percentage of correspondents who agreed with each measure:

  • Plant conservation
  • Scientific research
  • Collections
  • Horticulture
  • Public engagement and education
  • Sustainability and ethics
  • Business management and governance

Here’s the overall list:

Is there anything genebanks could learn from these?


How many genebanks are there in the world?

by Luigi Guarino on July 18, 2017

The UN Statistics Division (UNSD) is responsible for bringing together data on the Sustainable Development Goals, and does a generally pretty good job of explaining the just-agreed targets and indicators on its new(ish) website. Let’s remind ourselves that Goal 2 is: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” And that Target 2.5 and its associated indicators are as follows:

The UNSD website presents the challenge under the heading: Increased efforts are needed to achieve the 2020 target on maintaining genetic diversity. But what’s the baseline? Here’s what it has to say specifically on genebanks (Indicator 2.5.1):

By the end of 2016, 4.7 million samples of seeds and other plant genetic material had been conserved in 602 gene banks across 82 countries and 14 regional and international centres. Over the past 11 years, the rate of increase in gene-bank holdings has slowed.

There’s even a graph:

These figures, however, are a bit of a departure from the ones we usually use, which come from the Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (SoWPGR2). That said there were 7.4 million accessions in 1,750 genebanks in 2010. This is from the “synthetic account” of SoWPGR2, a kind of executive summary:

Have 1,148 genebanks up and disappeared? No, I don’t think so. What’s happened is that UNSD is using data from FAO’s ongoing efforts to monitor implementation of the Global Plan of Action on PGRFA, and prepare the third SoWPGR, and these are still incomplete, not all countries having reported yet (there’s a couple of years still to go on that process, but an update was provided to the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture earlier this year). Likewise, 2 million-odd accessions have not gone up in smoke. It could be just incomplete data again. Or maybe UNSD is using data on Annex I crops only? The metadata behind the UNSD information on Target 2.5 refers to “unique” accessions in long- and medium-term conservation, rather than total number of accessions, so it could be that too. Here’s the relevant excerpt from SoWPGR2:

Based on figures from the World Information and Early Warning System (WIEWS) and country reports, it is estimated that about 7.4 million accessions are currently maintained globally, 1.4 million more than were reported in the first SoW report. Various analyses suggest that between 25 and 30 percent of the total holdings (or 1.9-2.2 million accessions) are distinct, with the remainder being duplicates held either in the same or, more frequently, a different collection.

Germplasm of crops listed under Annex I of the ITPGRFA is conserved in more than 1,240 genebanks worldwide and adds up to a total of about 4.6 million samples. Of these, about 51 percent is conserved in more than 800 genebanks of the Contracting Parties of the ITPGRFA and 13 percent is stored in the collections of the CGIAR centres.

Anyway, I’m sure all this will be sorted out in due course. Let’s not quibble. It’s difficult pulling these data together from dozens of countries, plus regional and international organizations as well, and just having genebanks recognized as crucial to the goal of ending hunger is pretty cool, no matter how you count them.


Restoring agricultural systems, one field at a time

by Luigi Guarino on July 17, 2017

I know I Nibbled both of these things already, but I think it’s worth highlighting them again, and putting them together. I’m referring to two attempts to restore agricultural system, both, as it happens, involving sophisticated water management.

Here’s billionaire hedge-fund manager Louis Moore Bacon, owner and would-be restorer of Orton Plantation, Brunswick County, North Carolina, about 15 miles down the wonderfully named Cape Fear River from Wilmington:

“Restoring the historic rice fields recognizes centuries-old rice farming practices of enslaved Africans… I am awed and inspired by the resilience that helped create these fields, and by saving them, I have an opportunity to commemorate the lives of those who were critical to the development of this land, rather than have their prodigious work swept under by the Cape Fear River. We must ensure these sacrifices are not forgotten and are properly recognized by the restored Orton Plantation.”

And here’s Maui, Hawaii taro farmer Hōkūao Pellegrino of Nohoʻana Farm:

“We had 125 people [in 2004] come and help open our very first loʻi1. Kalo farmers from the Big Island to Kauaʻi and everywhere in between; family members, cousins, neighbors—it was huge… If everyone who had loʻi kalo on their land decided to start farming, Waiheʻe would once again become a highly productive area… It looks like Hawaiians just picked up and left yesterday… I want people to eat healthy food at reasonable prices… Poi should be available to everybody, and at a cost that they can afford… Fixing our food system isn’t going to be the magic bullet… If we want a thriving community, we have to approach it from all angles… We want to be good neighbors, good to our land, and good to our people.”

More power to both of them, and let’s hope they grow interesting varieties in their restored fields.

  1. Taro pond. []


Brainfood: African tea, Iranian olives, Persistent identifiers, Fast breeding, Lablab domestication, Pea origin, Celebs & conservation, Ancient dope, Sugarcane evolution, Chicken selection

17 July 2017

Multiple origins and a narrow genepool characterise the African tea germplasm: concordant patterns revealed by nuclear and plastid DNA markers. It’s a “potpourri,” but kinda missing Chinese Assam stuff. The eastern part of the Fertile Crescent concealed an unexpected route of olive (Olea europaea L.) differentiation. It was in Iran before domestication. Identifiers for the […]

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CILY in cassava: not so fast

16 July 2017

So it turns out the article the previous post on the possibility of Côte d’Ivoire lethal yellowing phytoplasma (CILY) attacking cassava in that country may have been a bit premature. Dr Lava Kumar, virologist and Head of Germplasm Health Unit at IITA, left the following comment on my Facebook page: Misleading! The symptoms on these […]

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CILY jumps to cassava?

14 July 2017

You know that disease that we said about a year ago was threatening coconut plantations (and, incidentally, a coconut genebank) in Côte d’Ivoire? Yeah, Côte d’Ivoire lethal yellowing phytoplasma (CILY) that’s the one, well remembered. Well, it looks like it may be affecting cassava as well. That’s not good. Not good at all. To our […]

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Creating a Global Seed Conservation Directory

11 July 2017

This form will be used to populate an online Seed Conservation Knowledge Hub – a directory of facilities, individuals, and expertise in all aspects of seed conservation. Your participation completing this form is supporting the development of a tool that will benefit the seed conservation community. The information you provide in this form (apart from […]

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Brainfood: Wild foods, Maize in Guatemala, Wild lentils, Sorghum gaps, Ethiopian erosion, Chikanda barcoding, Brazil nut systems, Wild carrots, Ancient wild potato use, Wild wheat grains

10 July 2017

The role of wild fruits and vegetables in delivering a balanced and healthy diet. Not great, until they’re domesticated. Maize Diversity, Market Access, and Poverty Reduction in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. Forget maize. Evaluation of Wild Lentil Species as Genetic Resources to Improve Drought Tolerance in Cultivated Lentil. Environment explained drought response in wild […]

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The shocking news about breeding for flavour

5 July 2017

Luigi linked, with scarcely a comment, to a plant breeding paper by Kevin Folta, scourge of biotech deniers everywhere. Stripped down, what Folta and his co-author, Harry J Klee, propose is that plant breeders “can now turn to the consumer for guidance in defining critical desires,” by which they mean previously unconsidered trifles like flavour […]

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