Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cowpea biodiversity – 15,000 samples and counting…

Dominique Dumet, Head of IITA's Genetic Resources Center, gives journalist Busani Bafana the low down on the world's largest collection of cowpea.

What's the status of the world cowpea collection?

IITA has a mandate to preserve the germplasm under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization. for the good of humanity. We maintain over 15 000 samples of cowpea collected since the early 70s from all over Africa, India, Asia and Americas. We maintain the collection at low temperatures to expand their lifespan and we distribute worldwide to whoever wants to use them for research in agriculture and food security.

Where are the hot spots for biodiversity losses?

It is difficult to say because there are few reports on genetic erosion on the African continent. We do not know everything about the diversity of cowpea in Africa.

Where are the gaps in the collection?

There are eco-geographical gaps in our collections. In Namibia, for example, we do not have anything. In Angola, we have very little. We would like to acquire a wild relative to cowpea which to our knowledge is not maintained in any genebank. We do not have samples from Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Equatorial-Guinea and Rwanda. We do have samples from Botswana, Congo, DR Congo, Gambia, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Swaziland and Uganda but these are small samples.

Does Africa hold the largest diversity of cowpea?

IITA maintains the largest collection of cowpea and its wild relatives worldwide but all national collections, even if smaller, are important as they are likely to maintain unique germplasm.

Which cowpea lines are at risk?

There has not been a study of cowpea’s genetic erosion study, so we actually do not know where the biggest risks are. We need to integrate various erosion risk such as adoption of a new varieties or climate change into our ecogeographical gap analysis. We need to do collection missions to save samples. We will be doing a collection mission starting in October 2010 in Nigeria and we are going to cover 15 000 km. Remy Pasquet, a well known Vigna taxonomist, will lead the collecting mission.

Are there any new tools available for understanding and providing access to the world cowpea collection?

We recently developed an online inventory system and a user-friendly, Google-type search engine that allows breeders and researchers to search through the samples for characteristics and passport data.

How does the passport data work?

When you collect a sample from the field, you give it specific particulars just like a passport. For example, the passport must include the exact location where the sample was collected, the name of the collector, the year of the collection and the local name. This information is useful to breeders but also to genebank curators. The benefit is that it helps breeders and curators know about the environment where the sample 'was born'. Unfortunately, in the past, collections were not given such information which was not good. Now everyone is aware of the importance of passport data.

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