Gene bank preserves country's flora against extinction

Institution struggles for funding as government refuses to guarantee NIS 1.5m basic budget.

agronomist (photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks)
(photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks)
Largely unknown to the public and with little fanfare, the national Israel Gene Bank for Agricultural Crops (IGB) in Beit Dagan has been safeguarding Israel's flora for future generations, and for research purposes against the encroaching dangers of modernization, industrialization and climate change. Preserved for their genetic usefulness as foodstuffs or medicine, the flora are lovingly picked, cleaned, reduced to seeds and stored in a room that looks and feels like a very cold library. Carefully labeled crates of bottles fill shelves set into runners on the floor. All told, they represent many of the 2,700 species of plants that call Israel home. Having recently inaugurated state-of-the-art technology that rivals the best in the world, the bank is poised on the cusp of revolutionizing its procedures, IGB Head Dr. Rivka Hadas told The Jerusalem Post this week. The Israel Gene Bank was established in 1979 and was mainly tasked with importing plants from abroad for research purposes here. Two-thirds of the old collection was plants from abroad, Hadas explained. However, about a decade ago, the bank retasked itself to preserve the flora of Israel for future generations. With such an important task, one would expect this national institute to be handsomely supported by the state. However, that is not the case. The new facilities were mostly built through the generosity of a private donor and some help from the Agricultural Research Organization in which it sits, Hadas said. While the government does give some money - the Science, Culture and Sport Ministry was a big supporter until recently - they do not have a guaranteed annual budget even for basic maintenance. "The budget is always a hard battle. We are supported by the government, but [the money] is never promised [from year to year]. In the last few years, the agriculture minister and the Agriculture Ministry have supported us. The Environmental Protection Ministry has not yet funded us directly. Every year, we have to go out and fight for our budget," Hadas lamented. Despite the fact that it is a state of the art hi-tech facility, its budget requirements are decidedly meager. "An annual budget of NIS 1-1.5 million would enable us to maintain the infrastructure and then go out and raise the rest. It is much easier to raise money when we can say that the government is doing its part," Hadas said. One-third of the bank's employees are paid through the Agriculture Ministry, but two-thirds must be paid through private funding, she added. To put the IGB's budget needs in perspective, the government has just allocated NIS 20m. a year to build bike paths all around the country to turn Israel into a tourist destination for serious bikers. "We're researchers, not public officials or media personalities. We have no access to politicians and the Agricultural Ministry's spokesman's office is not promoting this national asset," Hadas noted. "This is not something where one can say, we're not going to do it now, let's start doing it in 20 years," she added. Agricultural Research Organization spokeswoman Ilana Peer told the Post on Monday that the Bank had an interim budget approved for the next three years. She said the organization epected to make that a permanent annual budget at the end of the three years. Hadas, however, said the Bank had no budget, not even an interim one, just a general expression of support by the Agriculture Ministry. Hadas said in response to a query by the Post that there were no plans to highlight this national asset during Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations this year. So it will keep quietly humming along in Beit Dagan keeping the basic ingredients of our food safe at -20º so that we don't find ourselves one day having to eat synthetic protein glop, like in The Matrix. Israel stands at the crossroads of three continents - Europe, Asia, and Africa - and its vegetation reflects that diversity. Crops suited to the sea, the desert and the mountains have all taken root here over the years. In fact, there are about 2,750 different species of plants in Israel. That means that Israel has one of the most diverse ranges of plant life per kilometer on the planet. For example, Europe has a species-to-square-kilometer ratio of 1:840, Turkey has a ratio of 1:13.5, but Israel has a 1:17.6 ratio. Moreover, there are plants here which are the forebears of many crops planted all over the world. Wheat for bread originated here, as did lentils and chickpeas, Hadas said. Israel sits in the ancient Fertile Crescent, Hadas explained, which has also contributed to the diversity found here. Technically, Israel is part of a region called the Flora Palaestina, which extends somewhat beyond the borders of modern Israel. The IGB does not, however, pick up a sample of every leaf and tree in Israel. "It has to be useful," Hadas told the Post from her office in the Volcani Center of the Agricultural Research Organization. "Modern man threatens the genetic diversity of plant life through building and industrializing. Moreover, modern agriculture also reduces the gene pool because farmers want uniformity. All the crops have to be the same size, produce the same amount of yield. Certain crops are bred as opposed to others because they are hardier," Hadas elaborated. The IGB begins by collecting those forebearer crops which serve a purpose, either for medicine, food, fruit trees or flowers. Hadas explained, "We start with what we know and those which we know what they are used for." The collection is immediately divided in two - one part for current research purposes and the other to be frozen for future generations. It's not as simple as picking one stalk of wheat, one of barley, etc., however. There is often much intraspecies genetic variation, according to Hadas, pointing out that wheat from the Hermon and wheat from Jerusalem can contain totally different genetic traits. Botanists go out into the wild and bring back samples, along with all the information about where it was found. The information is entered into a computer and the plants begin the storage process. The storage process is a three-fold one. First, the plants are cleaned. Agronomists reduce the plant to its essential seeds, while making sure they are still alive. Then the plants are carefully labeled and moved to a humidity controlled room where they are almost totally dried out. Finally, the bottles are transferred to the -20º Celsius storerooms to be stored for hundreds of years. The cold storage room looks like a university archives, with rolling shelves and place for thousands of samples. Samples range in size from medium-sized bottles to spore invisible to the naked eye, Agronomist Dan Schafferman told the Post during a private tour of the facility on Sunday. The IGB also has three live collections of crops. Fruit trees and plants that are used for medicine and spices are grown naturally, because they cannot be frozen easily. In addition, if a specific fruit tree produces good fruit, one needs a part of the living tree to reproduce the good fruit and not just its seeds. Seeds contain the genetic possibilities for all types of fruit, both good and bad, Hadas explained. The trees are grown in Neveh Ya'ar, the Volcani Institute's northern grounds. Garlic does not produce seeds and so must be grown live, as well, she said. Many countries have gene banks and some even have more than one. The IGB sends duplicates to a gene bank in Kew Gardens, England for safekeeping. Hadas said they might in the future also send samples to the new bank that recently opened in Norway.