Diversity Seek & Digital Seed Bank

Agriculture today depends on only a few crops that are cultivated on a large scale; most notably the cereal crops maize, rice, and wheat, which supply 60% of the world’s food energy intake. Despite advances made during the Green Revolution of the 1960s, researchers are now starting to note a decrease in yields in the major staple crops across the globe. As well as this, the global population continues to rise and is estimated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. We therefore urgently need to identify new sources of genetic variation to enhance the productivity, sustainability and resilience of crop varieties and agricultural systems.

Approximately seven million crop accessions are being conserved worldwide, yet little is known about the molecular and biochemical basis of this diversity and how it could benefit modern day varieties. Germplasm banks across the globe represent one of the greatest – largely untapped – opportunities to accelerate yield gains and overcome emerging bottlenecks in crop productivity. However, to access this wealth of diversity will require this material to be characterized via the application of state-of-the-art genomic, phenomic and molecular technologies, and subsequent public release of the data. Such efforts will allow us to better understand crop diversity and unravel how it can be best utilized in the future by breeders, and in molecular breeding programs, to improve current varieties and develop new ones.

The Diversity Seek (DivSeek) Initiative has been established by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Secretariat of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the CGIAR Consortium and the Global Plant Council to unlock the potential of crop diversity stored in genebanks around the world. DivSeek is a community-driven initiative and acts as a ‘magnet’ to bring together existing, emerging and future projects. Together these projects will characterize crop diversity in a systematic and coordinated manner, and will establish a cohesive information management platform to provide easy access to genotypic and phenotypic data associated with seedbank germplasm. For further information on the DivSeek Initiative, visit http://www.divseek.org/.

The Global Plant Council has also established the Digital Seed Bank initiative. This is a foundational DivSeek project and will act as a ‘flagship’ to illustrate the power of mining the genetic potential of crop diversity. The Digital Seed Bank aims to capture the genotypic, molecular, biochemical and metabolic information associated with crop diversity, and link it with observable phenotypic information of crops in their native environments. To begin with the Digital Seed Bank will focus on the molecular characterization of cassava, rice and wheat diversity.

The Digital Seed Bank will hold detailed information on the molecular and biochemical basis of genotype x environment interactions, and allelic diversity, and will utilize this data to discover the gene networks controlling quantitative traits for yield and quality performance. The molecular characterization of crops is no longer a bottleneck, and technologies exist today for re-sequencing crop genomes at low cost. When combined with quantitative information about the expression of genes, proteins, and metabolites from crops growing in environmental conditions that reflect their diversity, this will give breeders unprecedented new and valuable insights that can be exploited for crop improvement programs.


International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

DivSeek White Paper


Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security (2014)
C. Khoury et al
PNAS 111 (11) 4001-4006

Agriculture: Feeding the future (2013)
S. McCouch et al
Nature 499, 23–24 doi:10.1038/499023a