Plant Genetic Resources Project

Enhancing Germplasm Conservation for Australian Agriculture

The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) has funded a national project for 'Enhancing Germplasm Conservation for Australian Agriculture'. Project DAS00052 is managed by SARDI.

Project Summary

The sustainability of Australian agriculture is dependent on continued access to new sources of germplasm to enable plant breeders to breed or select new, improved cultivars of crops and forages. No country is self sufficient with respect to plant germplasm needed by plant breeding programs. The recently agreed International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture will enable researchers to gain access to germplasm collections in many other countries. Therefore, it is timely that Australia establishes a national system for conserving our valuable plant genetic resource collections.

This national project for plant genetic resources of benefit to the Australian grains industry will:

  1. acquire new germplasm of priority accessions from overseas
  2. ensure long-term conservation of germplasm accessions with critical genetic diversity of exceptional value
  3. enhance utilisation of the germplasm collections by research clients.


Collaborating Agencies
Victoria Department of Primary Industries
Queensland Department of Primary Industries
New South Wales Department of Primary Industries
Western Australia Department of Agriculture


The future of Australian agriculture relies very heavily on continued access to new sources of germplasm imported from other countries to enable plant breeders to breed or select new improved cultivars of crops and forages. Australia's long-term food security is hence dependent on secure access to plant germplasm. The Australian Plant Genetic Resource Centres provide this long-term security while also meeting current industry needs for on-going plant improvement.

Prior to the 1980s, plant breeders acquired and maintained their own germplasm collections. In the early 1980s, the Commonwealth and State governments establish a network of eight Genetic Resource Centres to conserve national germplasm collections of field crops and forages. Over the past 20 years, these Centres have operated independently with limited coordination and with host organisations being responsible for operating the Centres and maintaining the germplasm collections. 

Since the mid 1990s, GRDC has been the major R&D Corporation financially supporting the operation of five Centres for field crops and forages. The Medicago and Trifolium Collections received some financial support from the wool industry in the late 1980s. Prior to 1995, post-entry plant quarantine services were provided free-of-charge by AQIS. However, in 1995 AQIS handed the operation of post-entry plant quarantine facilities to the States, and each Genetic Resource Centre assumed responsibility for operating its own quarantine facility. In 2002, the tropical forages germplasm collection was transferred from CSIRO to QDPIF Biloela to be amalgamated with the tropical crops collection, thereby reducing the number of Genetic Resource Centres.

Project DAS00052 combines Centre funding through GRDC into one national project. It is ensuring germplasm conservation activities continue at the Australian Centres. Concurrently a national steering committee is managing a review process to reprioritise activities and implement changes across the Centres in order to most effectively deliver the germplasm needs of industry. In this way the project is playing a vital role in providing long-term security for the germplasm that underpins Australia's food supply.


1. Collection and Acquisition of new germplasm
Germplasm will be sourced and aquired in two ways. Firstly, germplasm requested by Australian researchers will receive the highest priority. Secondly, unique and potentially valuable germplasm (especially landraces and uncultivated relatives) will be identified and acquired over a longer time frame and generally with a lower priority.

2. Post-Entry Plant Quarantine
Germplasm materials imported into Australia will be grown in post-entry plant quarantine following AQIS protocols to ensure materials are free of diseases and pests, do not constitute a high weed risk and retain their geneticintegrity. Quarantine facilities across Australia will be utilised effectively to ensure an efficient flow of germplasm through this costly stage of germplasm acquisition.

Long-term Conservation and Viability monitoring
All germplasm accessions will be conserved in long-term storage at –18ºC. Unique accessions will be deposited at a second backup storage location to insure against inadvertent loss. Accessions in demand from clients will also have seed stored in medium-term storage at +5ºC.

Accessions in long-term storage will be viability tested every 10–20 years to ensure accessions are not lost through seed deterioration. Seed viability will also be measured on all new seed samples entering long-term storage (Figure 1).

Seed increase and Regeneration
Regeneration is expensive so germplasm accessions will be classified as:

  • valuable for long-term conservation; or
  • useful for the life of the seed lot.

Valued accessions, either existing with low seed viability or quantity or recently imported through quarantine, will be seed increased or regenerated and the harvested seed placed in long-term storage. The method of regeneration will ensure that genetic integrity and diversity of accessions is maintained. The method will vary with out-crossing or self pollinated species; with wild species, landraces or bred lines; with populations, inbred lines or male sterile parents.

Medium term seed storage at the Waite Institute



















Figure 1: Medium Term seed storage at Waite Institute

Characterisation and seed multiplication of germplasm at the Waite Institute

Figure 2: Characterisation and seed multiplication of germplasm at the Waite Institute


3. Characterisation
Many accessions within the collection have inadequate characterisation data to facilitate effective utilisation. This data will therefore be measured and recorded, wherever possible, on accessions during the regeneration phase. A photo of the characterisation and seed multiplication plots at the Waite Institute is shown in Figure 2. For species where this is impractical as plant phenology and growth are radically modified by the off-season environment or by the artificial crossing regimes, the data will be obtained in other ways (eg in collaboration with clients). Research clients will be consulted when determining the particular traits or characters to be documented for each crop or species group.

The availability of evaluation data will greatly enhance the efficient utilisation of accessions. This project will not collect evaluation data, being outside the scope of germplasm conservation. However, evaluation data collected by other researchers, where available, will be documented and made available to clients.

4. Documentation
Each Germplasm Centre will continue to maintain a comprehensive database for passport, characterisation/ evaluation and seed inventory information. The databases will require regular improvements to meet changing requirements, e.g. intellectual property details, International Treaty details, Material Transfer Agreements. Databases generally have a life of approximately ten years, hence the databases at some Germplasm Centres may require a substantial upgrade.

Documentation of passport data on all accessions in the collection, especially habitat collection data, will continue to be improved. Much passport data on past collections still remains in paper-based records and the time-consuming task of transfering the information to the database will continue.

5. National web database
AusPGRIS, the national on-line database for passport and some characterisation/ evaluation data, is available to research clients via the internet. It will be maintained and periodically updated. The on-line database will have provision for clients to request seed of accessions at each Centre.

A review will be undertaken of IT needs and future options for the national database, AusPGRIS, to plan an effective service to clients using the latest improvements in information technology.

Utilisation of Germplasm Collections and Communication with Client Users

On request from bona-fide researchers worldwide, curators will distribute small samples of seed of germplasm accessions plus passport and characterisation/ evaluation information. A Material Transfer Agreement, as agreed under the International Treaty, will accompany all dispatches once the Treaty becomes operational.

Regular communication between curators and research clients in Australia about researchers needs and expectations of the national germplasm collection is essential for efficient utilisation of these valuable germplasm collections. Communication will be via attendance at crop specific meetings, via newsletters and personal contact.

A report of the Activities of the Australian Agricultural Genebanks in 2004 and 2005 includes information on the acquisition and long-term ex-situ conservation of germplasm, AQIS requirements and quarantine activities, viability testing of seed samples, distribution of seed and data to research clients, documentation and communication.