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A USDA legend retires

Marty Reisinger, who knows a thing or two about genebank documentation systems himself, has just sent in this appreciation of retiring USDA genebank database manager Quinn Sinnott. We all wish Quinn a long and happy retirement, and thank him for his important contribution to the field.

Quinn Sinnott, the database manager for GRIN, is retiring from the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Database Management Unit (DBMU) on August 31, 2019.

Quinn is one of the founders and early builders of GRIN, having served the project since it was initiated in 1983. GRIN started as an ARS project funded through a cooperative agreement with the University of Maryland.

GRIN went live in late 1983 on a PR1ME minicomputer with only a few megabytes of memory and 300 MB disk drives. The drives were the size of a low filing cabinet. Backups were made on large 9-track tape reels; at one point, it took 15 tapes to back up the database. The software was coded in FORTRAN for a CODASYL database. There was no SQL query capability. Instead, there was a program called DISCOVER that could do queries. They would often take hours to complete.

During Quinn’s tenure, GRIN’s hardware and software evolved a great deal. New hardware was purchased in 1992 for approximately $500,000 after a lengthy procurement process. In late 1994, GRIN was moved to a relational Oracle database running on a Unix system. The entire system was rewritten to work with Oracle Forms and SQL. The GRIN hardware was originally housed in the USDA National Agriculture Library, but sometime in the mid-90’s it was moved to the attic of Building 003 on USDA’s Beltsville, Maryland campus.

In 2008, Crop Trust supported a project to rewrite the GRIN system so that it could be run on either a personal computer or network and be maintained by the world genebank community as open source software. The database and interfaces were designed to accommodate commercial and open-source programming tools and be database-flexible. The DBMU selected Microsoft SQL Server for the USDA National Plant Germplasm System’s database engine; Quinn was instrumental in ensuring that the robust GRIN schema and functionality could be emulated in the new GRIN-Global platform.

Quinn is among those who have made GRIN/GRIN-Global the highly regarded system that it is. Genebanks around the world have excellent, continually improving tools to manage their collections and data, thanks in part to his efforts over more than 35 years.

Quinn will continue to assist the National Germplasm Resources Laboratory as a volunteer and help with GRIN/GRIN-Global matters occasionally as needed. A tremendous thanks to Quinn for his outstanding 35 years of service to ARS, the National Plant Germplasm System, and the global genetic resource community.

Guide to a well trodden path

The International Seed Federation has a handy brief Guide to Genetic Resources online. It covers why plant genetic resources are important, and what arrangements are in place for access and benefit sharing1 — not surprisingly, perhaps, mainly from the point of view of crop breeders.

Breeders work mostly with modern varieties, the so-called “elite” genetic resources. Sometimes they look beyond modern varieties to develop a valuable attribute, such as resistance to new pests or diseases, nutritional content, or flavour. They might use nonelite varieties, such as landraces, heirlooms, or crop wild relatives, which come mostly from public or private gene banks.

The conservation of genetic resources is like having an insurance. By having a larger pool of genetic resources, plant breeders are more likely to find solutions that farmers and others need. This means that efforts to conserve genetic resources are critically important. These genetic resources may contain the traits that future generations will need.

There’s a page on genebanks, focusing on the international collections of CGIAR.

It’s ok as far as it goes, I guess, but I would have liked to see more on the role of national and regional genebanks, information sources such as Genesys and WIEWS, and traits beyond productivity.

  1. With a link to their Genetic Resources Information Tree. []

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