Environment : Eastern German Seed Bank a Living Legacy for the World : An international campaign appears to have guaranteed the survival of a legendary collection of genetic plant material.


They did it with primitive computers and jerry-built equipment, without access to technology and information that their counterparts all over the world took for granted--and most likely under the watchful gaze of agents from the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. But since the end of World War II, scientists, researchers and gardeners here have carefully tended a seed bank that most experts rank among the best in the world.

The Institute of Genetic and Cultivated Plant Research at Gatersleben stores a priceless collections of the genetic materials of dozens of crops. The seeds and plant cuttings are in themselves safes for the future--holding the genetic traits of crops that for generations to come will feed the hungry, cure the ailing and clothe the naked.

The institute, with its seed storage, research and planting areas, sprawls through dozens of aging buildings and across lawns and fields. It offers a green legacy to the world that is all the more amazing in contrast to the environmental nightmares bared by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And now, Gatersleben holds a rare--perhaps unique--political position in the unification of Germany: an Eastern institution predominating over a Western one.

For many tense months, anxious members of the worldwide community of plant resource experts feared Gatersleben would be shut down and its collections moved to its Western counterpart at Braunschweig. Now, it is not only likely that Gatersleben will remain open (albeit at greatly reduced staffing levels), it stands to be the surviving entity if the two seed bank operations are consolidated.


“Very early on in the unification process, we were all quite worried that they would just want to have Braunschweig take us over,” said Peter Hanelt, who heads the unit supervising Gatersleben’s gene bank. “But that fear, thank God, has been laid to rest. There was a ‘Save Gatersleben’ campaign, and many of our British and other foreign colleagues . . . wrote letters to the ministry on our behalf.”

Seed experts, under the auspices of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, are closely monitoring political deliberations--including some expected this week--that could yet dilute Gatersleben’s significance in the worldwide network of seed banks.

Even so, Gatersleben may be better off than other banks in Eastern Europe whose futures are jeopardized by political upheaval and economic tumult. This past summer the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, an agency of the FAO, issued an urgent call for attention to the seed banks of Eastern Europe.

“With the rapid social and economic changes in those countries, the safety of these gene banks is not good, their continuity is not assured. We are at the risk of losing germ plasm of vital interest to the whole world,” Jose T. Esquinas-Alcazar, secretary of the commission, said.

Germ plasm is a general term covering a variety of forms, such as seeds, cuttings and tubers, in which a plant’s genetic materials can be preserved for reproduction. These collections of germ plasm have many times over proved their worth to the world’s agricultural system; farmers, researchers and plant breeders continually return to saved genetic materials to find the keys to improve crop yields, resistance to diseases and pests and tolerance to hostile environments and climates.

Seed banks are the first line of defense against massive crop failures and food shortages, especially as more plant species--and their valuable genetic traits--fall victim to development pressures and environmental disasters. In only a handful of countries, however, are seed banks recognized by the political structures as a critical element of national security. The rest remain largely unknown, even neglected divisions of agriculture ministries--and thus vulnerable in times of political turmoil or economic hardship.

At Gatersleben, Hanelt is awaiting a German government decision--expected today--on whether the institute will be placed under the control of the Agriculture Ministry or remain under the auspices of the Ministry for Science and Education.

Hanelt prefers that it remain as it is and fears that a proposal by agriculture officials to separate its administrative and scientific functions would transform the center into more of a “seed depot, like the Japanese have,” than a research-oriented bank.

Pat R. Mooney, a Canadian plant-genetics activist who heads the International Genetic Resources Programme of the Rural Advancement Fund International, said: “Eastern European gene banks are collapsing. . . . These governments won’t save them for eternity; they are at the whims of the ministers of agriculture. One slip, and they (the seeds) are dead.”

The FAO commission has launched an investigation into the status of the seed banks at Gatersleben and in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania. Right now, the commission is gravely concerned about the Bulgarian bank, where power supplies are being threatened by economic ills. Esquinas-Alcazar said the commission is prepared to ship emergency generators to that bank.

Loss of electricity would be devasting to the seeds. Long-term storage of seeds requires strict control of temperature and humidity. Changes affect germination rates and can alter or destroy the very genetic properties for which the seeds are being saved.

Though the commission is ready to assist the evolving Eastern European governments in protecting the assets of their seed banks, members of the loose international coalition of plant-resource experts have been most concerned about Gatersleben.

That is because Gatersleben’s bank, with its 68,000 samples, ranks among the best in the world, far outstripping its neighbors throughout Eastern Europe.

“I used to say about gene banks that the oldest in the world was the American gene bank; the biggest, the Soviet Union; the most modern, the Japanese, and the best in world is the East German,” said Erna Bennett, who retired to Australia in 1981 after 25 years of pioneering plant conservation work at the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Its storage facilities are first-rate, allowing for medium-range (a decade or two) and very long-term storage. Experts believe that “freeze-dried” seeds will last at least 50 years.

Another of Gatersleben’s virtues is in the land around it, where the seeds are planted, and new seeds harvested to keep the bank’s samples fresh. Agriculture experts consider the countryside around Gatersleben an excellent seed-growing region.

Additionally, the staff conducts significant genetic research, and the collections are made available to other researchers around the world. Bennett and others say this open access to the Gatersleben collections is crucial. She criticizes the Braunschweig bank for being too closely linked to commercial interests--companies that make profits from selling new hybrid varieties--and less than generous with its materials.

“To face the social problems that plant breeding must resolve, we need to exclude purely commercial interests,” Bennett said, “otherwise we push plant breeding to make a quick buck but we are still not filling too many bellies.”

And it is the germ plasm itself that makes Gatersleben such a significant part of the international plant-conservation network. Among its vaults are “world” collections of tomato and barley genetic materials, meaning the samples are considered to be representative of the wide varieties within those species.

It also has duplicates of many important samples originally collected during the 1920s and 1930s by the Soviet scientist Nikolay I. Vavilov and his teams of more than 20,000 plant collectors.

Most seed experts believe that the Gatersleben duplicates have fared better than the originals housed in Leningrad’s massive N. I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry. They suspect irreparable damage was done to Leningrad’s collection during the Stalin era.

Though its collectors and scientists were hampered by limited budgets and the secrecy that cloaked many of East Germany’s governmental agencies, Gatersleben’s collections benefited from membership in the Soviet Bloc. Its collectors were free to go on plant-hunting expeditions in countries such as Cuba, the Soviet Union and North Korea that severely restricted activities of Western collectors.

Gatersleben also benefited from the Nazi government’s fascination with genetics. The collections in North Africa were begun before World War II, and as Nazi troops swept through Europe, plant collectors followed.

The German government first established a base for the collections in Vienna in 1943 and moved it to Gatersleben after the war. The area was chosen for its favorable climate and because the area--near Halle and the venerable Martin Luther University--suffered little damage during the war.

Dr. Bikram Gill, a professor of plant pathology at Kansas State University at Manhattan, visited Gatersleben in 1986.

“It was kind of backward, the scientists worked under very poor conditions--I was appalled,” said Gill. And yet, he said, “I haven’t seen that kind of gene bank anywhere.

The Roles That Seed Banks Play

* Seed banks are crucial links in the world’s food chain--vital in the preservation of crops and the development of varieties that are higher-yielding, or more resistant to disease, pest and droughts.

* The banks store and maintain collections of seeds and other plant genetic materials.

* They conduct genetic research and exchange seeds with plant breeders searching for crop-enhancing genetic traits, or farmers looking for plants best-suited to their fields.

* Their work has helped countries such as Mexico and India better feed their populations.

* In the 1950s, California barley fields were saved from a devasting virus after a researcher bred in the needed resistance from long-stored samples of Ethiopian barley.

Walters reported from Los Angeles and Jones from Germany.