In late May, employees from Wageningen UR's Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands (CGN) and local research institutes in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia will be searching for wild spinach seeds. Their main interest is Spinacia tetrandra, a wild spinach that is related to the spinach we are familiar with in shops today. It seems likely that the wild spinach has properties that will be of considerable valuable for breeding and research into this vegetable. The expedition will take approximately four weeks and hopefully provide scientists with scores of seed samples.
"The Trans Caucasus is an important region of origin for spinach," says Chris Kik, 'treasurer' of the Dutch gene bank's vegetable crops. "The wild species Spinacia tetrandra is closely related to the spinach we know grows there, for example. Another wild species, Spinacia turkestanica, grows in Central Asia and we can justifiably call these two regions the 'gene centre' of spinach. The plants of these wild spinach species probably have highly valuable properties for spinach breeding. We hope to find wild spinach that has extra resistance against pathogens and plagues, for instance, which would enable us to make food production securer and more sustainable."
By collecting wild spinach CGN is also contributing to the conservation of their biodiversity, especially as the environments in which they grow are so vulnerable. "In Central Asia, the wild spinach grows close to non-fertilised and non-irrigated land," adds Kik. "Once farmers start fertilising and irrigating this land to realise higher yields, the species will be at risk of becoming extinct. In addition to storing the seeds, we are ensuring that the quantity and quality of the seeds are conserved. This way we can prevent the seed samples collected, also known as accessions, and their valuable properties from disappearing for good."
Global gene banks currently only contain around 30 accessions of the two abovementioned wild spinach species. This small number hinders the development of both new spinach varieties and the innovative research. For this reason Kik visited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan already back in 2008 to collect Spinacia turkestanica. Kik: "We eventually managed to collect around 70 accessions and, in cooperation with breeding companies and institutes, are now studying how valuable the material is for breeding and research."
Most consumers only know one type of spinach; the one sold in our shops. While it is easy to recognise the different varieties of apples, for instance, this is not the case with spinach. Kik: "And yet there are many different varieties of spinach available. The spinach we buy has been adapted to meet the current demands of consumers, traders and breeders. It has to suit the preferred taste, be easy to quick-freeze, and so on. These requirements are constantly changing and the question is whether breeding companies have a spinach variety that meets future demands. If not they will have to develop new types, which will make it very important to crossbreed with wild varieties to add 'new blood' and develop spinach with other properties than those seen in stores today."
The Dutch gene bank has many seeds of vegetable crops, and is one of the leading vegetable gene banks in the world. It houses over 400 different spinach accessions, from modern varieties and landraces to wild species, making the Dutch gene bank the world's largest for spinach. The seeds are used for breeding and research at companies and institutes the world over and CGN receives around 350 requests for spinach accessions a year.
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