It has concrete walls that could withstand a tornado, rooms kept at arctic temperatures, seeds that are 100 years old, and is home to one of the longest-running scientific studies in the world.
The National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, houses the world’s largest collection of genetic resources – material from 167 breeds of livestock – 36 species – and material from more than 1.1 million cultivated, wild and endangered plants from around the world.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service facility is both a resource for scientists and breeders and a backup of the country’s food supply. It’s a repository for the genetic material of crop plants, their wild relatives and the domesticated animals humans need to survive. It is widely considered a necessity because many of the plants and animals are threatened by emerging diseases, invasive pests, habitat loss, climate change and, in the case of livestock, illnesses and fertility problems.
Stored materials – known as germplasm – include the seed, pollen and vegetative tissue of plants as well as the sperm, embryos and tissues of animals.The National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation is part of a national network of gene banks comprised of material from animals and plants. The material has been donated to the Agricultural Research Service for safekeeping and study.
The National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation fortifies the entire collection, securing materials for the long term. As part of the national network, it sends animal samples and, in some cases, plant samples to researchers, breeders and educators in the United States and overseas. Plant samples also are stored and sent by other Agricultural Research Service gene banks in the network.
Any new seeds patented in the United States are shipped for storage to the seed vault, which is secured with a combination lock that only a few employees can open. Accessions are stored in cold vaults or in stainless steel, cryogenic tanks in which tissues are submerged or held in vapors of liquid nitrogen and frozen at -320 degrees Fahrenheit.
Scientists at the laboratory have developed new methods for storing germplasm to keep it viable for as long as possible. Their efforts often focus on addressing emerging threats. Recent achievements, for example, have been finding new ways to cryopreserve budwood from citrus trees that are being attacked by the Asian citrus psyllid. Another project focused on cryopreserving budwood from ash trees, which are being killed by the emerald ash borer.
The collection includes donations made decades before the facility was built in 1958. Scientists periodically evaluate the viability of seeds of a native California wildflower that were sealed in vacuum tubes in 1948 to determine how long plant seeds can remain viable in storage. The tubes are opened every few years. At least some seeds in each tube have remained viable. Plans call for the tubes to be opened periodically until 2307. Visit ars.usda.gov for more information.
Dennis O’Brien was formerly a writer in the office of communications for the
U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.