The Australian Grains Genebank (AGG) plays an important role in protecting the genetic material of key food crops in the event of a disaster, and is also a working research tool.
The manager of the $6 million, Horsham-based facility, Sally Norton says she expects the seed banks extensive collection of Australian wild relatives of critical food crops, such as sorghum, rice and mung beans, will be utilised in commercial breeding within 10 to 15 years.
Its a bit tricky as working with secondary and tertiary relations of the cultivated crops can take time but plant breeders are using genetic material from wild relatives found in Australia and I think they will develop varieties using material found in these plants, Dr Norton says.
All the major grain crops we grow in Australia are not native to here, but there are wild relatives that are and these plants may have specific genetic traits that allow them to grow well in our climate.
"These cousins of the cultivated crops have a lot of diversity in their genetic material which is of interest to breeders.
We do have some species which are primary relations, which are a lot easier for breeders to work with, but there are also the secondary and tertiary relations, which will require more work but hold valuable material.
The AGG facility holds 32 endemic Australian wild relatives to cultivated crops in its collection.
However, along with commercial considerations, gene banks also play a key role in helping alleviate the issue of food security globally, through sharing material.
Dr Norton says the experience with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), previously located in now war-torn Syria, showed the advantage of having a network of gene banks across the world.
ICARDA drew down on material they deposited into Svalbard after their facilities in Syria were destroyed, she says.
All the major grain crops we grow in Australia are not native to here, but there are wild relatives that are and these plants may have specific genetic traits that allow them to grow well in our climate
Other factors can threaten seedbanks.
Tony Gregson, a board member of the Crawford Fund, an Australian organisation dedicated to international agricultural research, says there are always climate risks to consider.
The Horsham facility includes more than 2.7 kilometres of shelf space at minus-20 degrees, a capacity to hold 200,000 packets of seed and more than 2000 different crop species.
The collection is currently about 130,000 seeds, growing by about 3000 seeds per year.
An adjacent field trials site allows wheat, barley and pulse varieties developed by international breeding programs and imported into Australia by the GRDC-funded International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT)-Australia-ICARDA Germplasm Evaluation (CAIGE) project to be tested under local conditions.
The Victorian government and the GRDC each invested $3 million and contributed for ongoing operating costs.
The AGG merges three seed collections from Victoria, NSW and Queensland into one national facility.
The creation of the genebank consolidated fragmented seed collections at several state sites into a centralised and securely funded facility for the first time.
Dr Norton says Horsham is an excellent choice for the collection.
The facility is next to the research infrastructure, including a state-of-the-art plant phenomics centre, that will be needed to optimise trait discovery, to rapidly incorporate new traits into breeding programs and deliver new varieties.