What does it take for a genebank to go online?

By christelle.rabil@croptrust.org
18 July 2022

Data managers from the national genebanks of Ghana and Zambia spill the beans

Over the course of the past year, the national genebanks of Ghana and Zambia have made available on Genesys passport data on some of their accessions. In an ideal world, accession-level data would already be digitized, centralized in a database and formatted according to MCPD v.2.1 standards. Then it would be a fairly simple matter to move it from the genebank’s database to Genesys. However, this is usually not always the case. For a lot of genebanks, making accession-level information of valuable crop samples available online to users around the world is in fact an enormous endeavor. 

Today we shed light on the efforts made behind the scenes to move the genebank’s data from paper records to the Genesys online portal by two data managers: Yaw Kwateng from the national genebank of Ghana (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research - Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute, CSIR-PGRRI), and Masiye Tembo from the national genebank of Zambia (National Plant Genetic Resources Center of Zambia, NPGRC).

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Page from a field notebook at the National Plant Genetic Resources Centre - NPGRC Zambia

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Page from a fieldbook from the Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute - CSIR-PGRRI Ghana

Yaw Kwateng notes that genebanks do a remarkable job in the area of germplasm collecting, characterization, evaluation, conservation and promotion of the sustainable use of plant genetic resources. However, he admits that documentation of germplasm often does not keep pace with other technological and scientific advances at the genebank, which means information doesn’t reach the users who need it. He describes some of the common challenges faced by genebanks in preparation for publishing on Genesys. Some accession data generated by the genebank is still only recorded in hard copy, and frequent handling of such documents makes them fragile and eventually difficult to decipher. Then, what data has already been digitized is often stored using outdated systems such as floppy disks, or is stored only on the personal computers of staff instead of institutional servers, increasing the risk of losing important information. Finally, a lot of the data does not conform to existing standards. 

All these challenges limit the ability of germplasm users to understand the diversity of germplasm available in genebanks, and camouflage the value of collections and their potential in addressing various adaptation and production bottlenecks. 

Such issues are more common than one might think, even in today’s highly digitized world, but can be mended by data managers and information specialists. So let’s look at the experience of introducing a comprehensive information management system with our other guest today, Masiye Tembo. 

Masiye notes that the exercise of mapping existing data onto the Multi-Crop Passport Descriptors (MCPD v.2.1) is quite demanding in terms of both time and effort - almost like digitizing the entire passport dataset all over again in some cases. The process also involves rigorous validation of data, for example checking the coordinates of collecting sites and identifying data entry errors that inevitably occur when handling data in Excel, say. 

The time and effort invested in consolidating and standardizing passport data could be spent on other genebank operations. So is it worth it? Masiye notes that the preparation of data for online publication has made their documentation system more robust and resulted in better documented accessions, which is a very worthwhile undertaking. For genebanks that are not yet sharing information about their collections online, this exercise provides an opportunity to become globally visible via the Genesys platform. 

"The use of the MCPD template helps genebanks to capture the most important accession passport data, which could otherwise have been shelved or lost altogether. Sharing data on Genesys allows genebanks to conveniently push the data to the cloud, and means potential users of genetic resources globally can explore the collections at the press of a button."

CSIR-PGRRI has uploaded more than 1,600 accessions to Genesys so far, around half of which have been given Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) by the Plant Treaty’s DOI Registration Service. 

Yaw also shares that:

"Although the journey of preparing data for publication on Genesys has been very time consuming, every minute has been worth it. The benefits derived from this process have served as motivation to complete the validation and uploading of all outstanding germplasm information to Genesys. We are grateful for the support to do this."

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Accessions from Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute Ghana (orange) and National Plant Genetic Resources Centre (blue)

In addition to making information on germplasm available online, Genesys includes a number of useful tools for users and genebanks alike. For instance, once the data is in Genesys, it can be easily and freely mirrored in the institutional website of the genebank. Instead of hosting and maintaining a separate database, paying for a web server and setting up a new domain name, the genebank can use Embedded Genesys to integrate data from Genesys directly into the institutional website.

The work by Masiye and Yaw, which continues apace, is part of Seeds for Resilience, a project funded by the Federal Government of Germany through the German Development Bank (KfW) and managed by the Crop Trust. The project supports capacity building in the national genebanks of Ghana, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria.