ICARDA holds almost 150,000 accessions, largely of its mandate crops – barley, wheat, food legumes, forage legumes and temperate range species – and 1,400 strains of the Rhizobium bacteria that enable legumes to fix nitrogen. About 21% of accessions are wild relatives, which are likely to become increasingly important as sources of the genetic diversity needed to cope with challenges such as climate change. More than 65% are traditional varieties or landraces.
Researchers at ICARDA and in the global community use the genebank accessions in research and to develop new, improved varieties. Over the past decade, the genebank distributed more than 200,000 samples to 65 countries.
Scientists at ICARDA have pioneered a new approach to the discovery of valuable genetic traits, known as Focused Identification of Germplasm Strategy. FIGS improves the use of genetic resources by pre-selecting those accessions that are most likely to contain the traits of interest to solve a particular breeding challenge, such as tolerance to heat or resistance to a specific disease because they were collected where those stresses are prevalent.
The genebank was established in 1983, at ICARDA’s headquarters in Aleppo, Syria. Even before the unrest in Syria, the genebank had begun to store safety duplicates of its collections not only at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault but also at collaborating genebanks around the world. The value of these duplicate collections became obvious when the Syrian uprising threatened the very existence of the genebank.
In late 2015, ICARDA started to retrieve many of its accessions from Svalbard to be restored in new genebank facilities in Lebanon and Morocco. For ICARDA’s efforts in protecting the genebank and its accessions, the Gregor Mendel Foundation awarded the genebank its Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize in March 2015.