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Conflicts threaten plant genetic resources

Highest concentration of important wild crop relatives 
is in Syria and Lebanon

A sample of Aegilops tauschii, a wild relative of wheat, collected in Afghanistan. It has natural resistance to the Hessian fly, a major pest of cereals worldwide.  Photo: USDA/ARS

Future crop-breeding improvements could be hampered by conflict in the world’s war zones, say researchers from the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

Many of today’s most important crops evolved from wild ancestors in the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East, arcing around the Arabian desert from Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and ending in Iraq and Iran. Wild relatives of these crops still grow in the area, and offer important genetic features for future crop breeding.

The researchers say the highest concentration of these wild relatives is in Syria and Lebanon, currently one of the world’s most unstable areas.

The researchers have developed an inventory of 173 crops and their 1,667 priority wild relatives, along with their particular traits. For example Aegilops tauschii, a wild relative of wheat, is resistant to Hessian fly which is a pest of cereal crops, Saccharum arundinaceum is a relative of sugar cane and can survive very low temperatures, and Prunus ferganensis, the wild relative of peach, is tolerant to drought.

In a release, the researchers say that 12 per cent of the wild relatives are threatened with extinction and all are likely to be already suffering a loss of genetic diversity due to habitat loss and alteration, conflict, intensive agriculture, urbanization and mismanagement of the environment.

The Birmingham researchers are now working with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and governments in the area on a strategy to conserve wild relatives by identifying and promoting the establishment of managed conservation sites in the wild, while taking samples and placing them in gene banks as a safety backup, where the genetic material can be kept for up to 300 years.

“It is very important that we conserve these species in secure gene banks, but it is critical to conserve them in their natural habitat as they will continue to adapt to changes in the climate as well as threats from pests and diseases,” said lead investigator Nigel Maxted.

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