Manual work in gene banks replaced by automation - Catrin

Manual work in gene banks replaced by automation

Developing new automated systems for gene banks, which are essential for preserving species diversity on our planet, but whose staff still rely on manual labor to handle thousands of plant seeds. This is the task of scientists from CATRIN at Palacký University Olomouc, who are collaborating with the largest domestic gene bank, the Crop Production Research Institute in Prague-Ruzyně, thanks to the support of the Czech Technology Agency. Several large world gene banks have already shown interest in the technology.

Gene banks were mostly established at the beginning of the last century. They store seeds of thousands of species of wild plants and hundreds of thousands of varieties and breeding lines of agricultural crops. They thus form a safety net for the restoration of biodiversity in nature and a source of material for breeding new varieties that are resistant to the harsh climatic conditions of the future. The Prague Gene Bank focuses on the conservation of agrobiodiversity within the framework of the National Program for the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources and Agrobiodiversity. As a national gene bank, it is of fundamental importance for domestic breeding programs.

“Technologically, however, gene banks have not evolved substantially, so they usually rely on labor-intensive manual work, which limits their further growth and effective functioning. To periodically test the viability of stored material, mostly seeds, staff must manually prepare thousands of samples. Therefore, our aim is to develop both an automated system for sample preparation, i.e. for seed handling, and a system for germination control. These systems must be robust, fast and reliable. We will test them directly in the Prague gene bank, which is a model institution for us,” said the project’s principal investigator Pavel Mazura from the CATRIN Phenotyping Research Group.

The researchers will build on previous experience. A few years ago, they developed an automated seed handling system called Cinderella, from which they learned a lot. “For gene banks, we will try to build a simpler system that is more tailored to their needs and their type of samples,” Mazura explained. At the same time, the scientists will use their focus on phenotyping, the automatic tracking of plant traits in relation to the environment. “The project will combine our knowledge of plant physiology, but also our experience with technology, sensors, growing plants in controlled environments, data analysis and artificial intelligence. We will also collaborate with partners from industry,” he added.

Although the new systems would primarily serve the largest domestic gene bank, other facilities will also be able to use it. There are around 1,700 gene banks in operation worldwide, but most are without automation. Three large gene banks have already expressed interest in the systems, including the UK’s largest gene bank, Millennium Seed Bank, India’s ICRISAT, and the largest tuber and potato gene bank, CIP, in Peru.

With regard to the current global problems, the leitmotif of the project is to preserve plant genetic resources for future generations. “In this technical way we are able to help provide a backup for biodiversity in nature. If we didn’t have this backup, there would be nothing to save in the event of a natural disaster or geopolitical conflict, for example,” Mazura concluded.

The project will last until the end of 2025 and the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic has supported it with almost CZK 12 million.

Martina Šaradínová
Karolina Zavoralová
June 13, 2023