In the seed bank’s laboratories, researchers pore over microscopes to prepare each seed for storage or research, selecting the optimal seeds and discarding any that are damaged.

“In the gene pool, we look for special traits, seeds that can survive in hot temperatures and/or with a lack of water or lots of water. We pick the best of the best,” said Luis Guillermo Santos, a CIAT bean researcher.

The bank provides free seed samples to researchers and farmers – often farming cooperatives looking to plant seeds once used by their ancestors, or more resistant varieties.

About 100 email requests from researchers and farmers are received each year for bean samples housed in the collection.

“Some farmers know the seeds they want, the same their grandfathers and those before them used. Or we can suggest which seeds to use according to their local conditions,” said Santos, adding the bank has distributed more than 500,000 seed samples to 142 countries across the world since 1973.

Over the decades, scientists using seeds from the gene bank have also developed more resistant and nutritious seeds, which is vital as the Earth’s loss of genetic diversity means crops are less resilient to disease, invasive species, pests, habitat loss and climate change, said CIAT researcher Norma Manrique.

“The bank is a way to protect biodiversity and conserve the biodiversity of crops that have already been lost in their native habitat,” Manrique said.

“These seeds are the solution,” she said. “This is a treasure. You can’t collect this again. It’s unique.”

In one success story, seeds collected decades ago from Ecuador and Colombia’s Amazon rainforest were used to produce a variety of cassava resistant to brown streak, a disease prevalent in parts of Africa that reduces harvests of the staple.

In another, bean varieties with higher zinc and iron levels have been identified, helping tackle malnutrition and hunger, Tohme said.

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