Attachment B. National Plant Germplasm System Policy

What the National Plant Germplasm System Is

The National Plant Germplasm System is a network of organizations and people dedicated to preserving the genetic diversity of crop plants. Coordinating the system is the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), principal research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The national system collects plant germplasm from all over the world, including the United States. Curators and other scientists preserve, evaluate, and catalog this germplasm and distribute it to people with a valid use. Members of the National Plant Germplasm System include federal, state, and private organizations and research units.

The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation

People often liken germplasm collections to banks--repositories of treasured seed. The Nation's only long-term seed storage facility is the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation at Fort Collins, Colorado. Here, our base collection serves as a savings bank by maintaining backup seed and vegetative propagule samples of the germplasm contained in the working collections. Also, when possible, it keeps seed for plants that are normally propagated from cuttings.

The National Germplasm Resources Laboratory

The National Germplasm Resources Laboratory is the hub for plant exploration activities and a clearinghouse for exchange of plant germplasm with foreign countries. This ARS lab catalogs all incoming accessions, assigns PI (plant introduction) identification numbers, and distributes germplasm to the various collections in the system. Some seed germplasm is sent to the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation to await quarantine processing at selected sites across the country.
GRIN, the Germplasm Resources Information Network
GRIN is the system's computer database. It contains information on all genetic resources preserved by the National Plant Germplasm System. Through GRIN, scientists learn about characteristics of specific germplasm and where it's located. ARS maintains the GRIN database at its research center in Beltsville, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., for scientists and other uses cooperating in the national system. All sites in the national system interact with the GRIN database regularly, entering data, conducting searches, recording seed orders, and so on.  Users can access the plant germplasm database at

What the Collections Contain

The collections include domestic and foreign plants, wild and weedy relatives of crop species, cultivars and inbred parental lines (varieties created through planned breeding programs), elite breeding lines, heirloom varieties, and genetic stocks.
Old World settlers brought such crops as wheat, rye, oats, barley, soybeans, apples, oranges, peaches, melons, cabbage, lettuce, onions, cotton, flax, walnuts, almonds, alfalfa, and red clover. A few crops--such as grapes, cotton, and hops--have wild relatives in the Americas and in Eurasia/Africa.  Most of the familiar New World crops came north with the Indians from Mexico and Central and South America. These crops include corn, beans, potatoes, peanuts, tobacco, squash, pumpkin, peppers, and tomatoes.

How Germplasm Is Stored

Depending on species, dry seeds can last from a few years to centuries. Seeds are dried to optimum moisture content, evaluated for quality, and sealed in moisture-proof containers. Then they are stored at below freezing (-18°C) for long-term preservation. For short-term storage, seeds are dried and placed in non-sealed containers at 5°C. But some species have short-lived seeds that are difficult to store. For these seeds, other methods are needed.
Researchers at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation are developing new ways to store germplasm. Cryopreservation (a type of freezing) in or over liquid nitrogen at -196°C is the most highly developed of these new techniques. The Center is now storing seeds and some vegetative propagules routinely at vapor temperatures of liquid nitrogen.

Germplasm Evaluation

Federal, state, and private sector scientists evaluate germplasm by screening for resistance to pests, diseases, and environmental stress; for quality factors such as color and flavor; and for other desirable traits. Research takes place in field, greenhouse, and laboratory. Results are available through the GRIN database.

Germplasm Users

The National Plant Germplasm System is devoted to the free and unrestricted exchange of germplasm with all nations and permits access to U.S. collections by any person with a valid use. Normally, this means plant researchers and breeders. Other users have included medical researchers and educators.

Germplasm users in other countries have the same privileges as those in the United States. This policy has grown out of the belief that germplasm, like the oceans and air, is a world heritage to be freely shared for the benefit of all humanity.
Altogether, the various collections in the National Plant Germplasm System ship over 130,000 items (packages of seeds and other plant materials) to users in the United States and in over 100 foreign countries each year.

Germplasm Donors

Plant Introduction numbers are assigned to all new germplasm and recorded in registries published by the USDA.  The registry and GRIN database contain all pertinent information on the germplasm such as donor, origin, taxonomic, agronomic, and cultural information.  The germplasm becomes part of the public domain and users cannot take out patents or other intellectual property rights that prevent others from using the germplasm to conduct research, grow out, or in any way restrict the publicís use of it.  It is available to seed saver organizations for growout and distribution to their members.

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