The Importance of Modernizing the Gene Banks with Dr. Marilyn Warburton

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Plant Germplasm Introduction and Testing Research: Pullman, WA
Agricultural Genetic Resources Preservation Research: Fort Collins, CO
USDA-ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN)

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Marilyn Warburton,

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Episode transcription:


Drew Lyon: Hello, welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast, do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a review so others can find the show too.


My guest today is Dr. Marilyn Warburton. Marilyn is the research leader of the USDA-ARS Plant Introduction and Testing Research Unit, a major U.S. gene bank located on the Washington State University campus. She is a research geneticist whose work explores the use of natural allelic diversity in crops to create new varieties that are more resistant to diseases, insects, and climate stresses, more nutritious or higher quality, and more useful to farmers, processors, and consumers. Marilyn has worked in the U.S. and internationally on agricultural genetic research on many crops, including pulses, maize, and wheat.

Hello, Marilyn.

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: Hello, Drew.

Drew Lyon: Nice to have you on the show today. Can you tell us what the USDA-ARS gene banks do and why that work is important?

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: Of course, I can. So, plant gene banks contain many accessions. These are unique plants or plant populations which are often collected from farmers’ fields, traditional markets, public and private breeding programs, and from other breeders, and they’re maintained as seeds or clones or like whole trees. So, the wild relatives of important crop plants are also collected and conserved. Gene banks ensure that these genetic materials are safely conserved and available for people to use, and they’re usually used by plant breeders, geneticists, agronomists, pathologists, and entomologists to identify accessions with specific useful traits.

The accessions with that trait can then be used in a breeding program to create new cultivars, and those cultivars will also have that trait, or to identify the gene or the genes that cause the trait, and then that information can be used to create new cultivars.

Gene banks can contain thousands or tens of thousands of accessions of crop plants. For example, our gene bank here on the WSU campus holds nearly 18,000 unique accessions of beans. There are 12,000 alfalfas, 7,300 chickpeas, about 3,600 lettuce plants, among other accessions. And so, in fact, among lots of other accessions, we have over 100,000 of them of 5,200 different economically important crops, medicinal, ornamental, and native plants.

The term bank, unfortunately, implies a static collection, but the seed must be periodically regenerated to ensure that they’re healthy and viable and replace the seeds that are distributed to requesters.

Drew Lyon: Okay, this sounds like quite the undertaking. When were these gene banks established and built? And how will some proposed improvements to the infrastructure and new applied technology help strengthen the program?

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: Well, the USDA was created by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, so it was billed as and is still called the People’s Department. Although the collecting of plants useful to U.S. agriculture was one of the first mandates of the USDA, the gene banks themselves were built mostly in the forties and fifties, although some are older than that. The 2018 Farm Bill included a request to the National Plant Germplasm System scientists and staff to identify causes of backlogs in gene bank activities.

There’s a lot of these activities. That includes the acquisition, maintenance, evaluation, enhancement, characterization, documentation, and distribution of all the accessions and the data about each one. Much of the current infrastructure that we have is not new, and the cold seed storage facilities, greenhouses, fields, laboratories, and computational resources could be expanded and upgraded with support in the new 2023 Farm bill.

This would allow us to regenerate more seed, so it doesn’t die in cold storage, ensure that it’s disease free and a duplicate sample is put into our backup storage facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, and to find out what each accession is good for and what useful genetic traits each one has, [and] make this information publicly available. And this way we can distribute seeds or clones of all the accessions in all the 22 U.S. gene banks and the information about each one.

Drew Lyon: Sounds like a huge undertaking to do all of that. Yes, probably what was being done in the forties and fifties just doesn’t stand up to the test of time and how much importance we put on genetics these days. So, how have new tools influenced how the plants in the gene bank can be characterized and evaluated for useful traits?

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: So, we have new tools now for genotyping plants that will allow us to see differences in the DNA sequence in or really close to every gene in the genome. So, the genome is all the DNA in the cell of an organism, and that includes all the genes that make it the unique individual that it is, except for clones, of course. If we can see differences between two plants in every gene, then we’ll be able to begin to see which genes are useful to us–if we can tie all that back to differences in the traits as well. But we have to measure the differences and all the important traits in several different individuals to be able to do that genetic analysis.

However, there are new tools for measuring every possible important trait too, including from drones and low earth-orbit satellites that can collect a lot of data on a lot of plants at a time during the growing season to new lab instruments that can measure what chemical compounds different plants are making as they grow. And then we can correlate these measurements to how resistant a plant is to an insect, for example, or if it has a useful new nutritional profile or if it’s drought tolerant in the field. With new ways of measuring a lot of plants quickly and genotyping a lot of plants quickly, we can see what each plant in the gene bank is good for and move the useful genes into new and improved cultivars for farmers in a really fast and efficient way.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so it sounds like technology has really moved along and provided you with these new tools that should allow you to–can we call it mining the gene bank for this new information?

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: Absolutely.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, how would this new strategic plan focus on safeguarding the plants in the gene banks and getting this information?

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: Right. So, eventually we’d like to use the new tools that I just mentioned to genotype and phenotype, which means measure, all the plants in our gene banks and then provide the most useful information to breeders possible. But first, however, we need to ensure that we have enough high-quality seed from every accession in the gene bank to allow them all to be safely backed up at our Fort Collins site, to send seeds to a geneticist and researchers to help us to do all of these analyzes and figure out what the plants are good for, and then also to send them to the breeders to put all that knowledge to work for the farmers.

So, we need to increase the number of seed that we regenerate every year to make sure that we have enough, especially to have new seed as they start to get old or low in inventory. And we have to do that beyond what we’re already doing each year now. So, that means that we need more field and greenhouse space than we have available right now. We need more equipment for planting, harvesting, drying, and seed cleaning, and we need to hire a few more people to do all that work. Plus, we also need to make sure that our seeds are disease free. We need to do more testing, more cleanup if needed. And finally, we need to make sure that we have collected all the useful plants from farmers around the world or from the wild or from other gene banks if needed. And we have to make sure that we have room to expand our collections because we’re actually full right now. So, we are looking to build new cold storage, too.

Drew Lyon: Oh, my! And this new strategic plan will help you achieve these goals? That’s the idea behind it?

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: Yeah, it’s all in the plan.

Drew Lyon: And the strategic plan will be in the farm bill?

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: It’s with Congress right now and they’re working on the new farm bill. So, we do hope so.

Drew Lyon: Okay. What could the strategic plan offer to U.S. wheat breeders or growers?

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: One of our sister gene banks, the National Small Grains Collection in Aberdeen, Idaho, holds the U.S. collection of temperate small grains, and that includes wheats but also barley, oats, some rice, rye, triticale, and various wild relatives, which can also be used in breeding for specific useful traits that aren’t found in their cultivated counterparts. They also maintain the genetic stock centers of barley and wheat, which were developed to allow genetic studies to identify genes and chromosomes with specific useful characteristics.

The strategic plan will allow for the new acquisition of wheat. Collection trips are still ongoing, but now, instead of focusing on old farmers’ landraces and heirloom varieties, which was the target in the past, we focus on wild wheat germplasm from around the world and on off-PVP varieties of wheat. The plant variety protection, or PVP, certificates of thousands of cultivars are going to expire in the next ten years or so, and this includes a lot of wheat cultivars. These will then be incorporated into the USDA gene banks. These off-PVP cultivars are highly requested from our gene banks, which reflects their importance to researchers and breeders and producers, so consequently, they are priorities for incorporation into our gene bank collections.

Then we have current specific challenges for the small grains collections, and that includes that there is a substantial backlog in the accession backup at Fort Collins specifically for crop wild relatives and genetic stocks, because in some of these we have too few seeds per accession and we have to grow them in the field to increase their numbers but some of these are particularly sensitive, especially the genetic stocks and some of the wild relatives, more so than modern and landrace cultivars, so we’re going to need to do a little research to figure out the best approach for regenerating them.

And then finally, we need to specifically screen the entire wheat and barley collections for new stem rust and Fusarium head blight resistance and for drought tolerance. These are the traits that many of our breeders and growers have specifically asked for.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so this gene bank program throughout the nation definitely does affect our wheat growers here in Washington, but it sounds like it affects anybody who eats plant material.

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: That is correct. So, if anybody out there has had a meal in the last whenever, you’re welcome.

Drew Lyon: I’ve seen some of it up here at the station, you have to plant a lot of the stuff on an almost annual basis.

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Now, a few things have to go out every year, like garlic. Most things have to go out every 10 to 20 years. But with 100,000 of them, as you can imagine, it’s an ongoing process.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, it sounds like a great resource that somebody–some relative of ours–envisioned at some time and got it started but that new tools coming along are going to really allow us to step this program up if we can find the funds to be able to do that. So, I know growers are always interested in the farm bill and here’s just another reason to be interested in the next farm bill to see how something like this new gene bank program works.

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: Absolutely.

Drew Lyon: Thank you for taking some time to talk to us about the gene bank program and plant introduction. I think it’s something that not a lot of people are aware of, and yet it’s quite a resource here, not just in Pullman, but throughout the country and really the world.

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: That is very true. And you’re welcome. Thank you for having me. I always enjoy talking about the importance of the gene banks.

Drew Lyon: So, that creates the question: If somebody wants to come and learn more about the gene banks, is there a website they can go visit to find out more about it?

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: The most informative ones I found are with the Fort Collins site. And so, if you Google plant germplasm Fort Collins, Colorado, or USDA National Plant Germplasm System, the gene bank there has done an excellent job along with their colleagues in university of putting up a lot of educational videos and interesting material.

Drew Lyon: Okay. We’ll see if we can get those URLs on our show notes so people can, if they’re interested, go find them, because it sounds very interesting to me. I’m sure some people will want to look into it further.

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: Yeah, great idea.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Thanks, Marilyn. Enjoyed having you on the program today.

Dr. Marilyn Warburton: Thank you. Very happy to be here.


Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. If you have questions or topics you’d like to hear on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon — that’s — ( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter [X] @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.