Question: when is a seed not a seed?

This article explores the future potential for DOI numbers to be used in identifying plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.
Image: Mariana Ruiz Villarreal/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Mariana Ruiz Villarreal/Wikimedia Commons

Answer: when it’s a DOI(!) You, dear readers, are probably familiar with electronic or on-line documents having a DOI (Digital Object Identifier), ‘a character string (a “digital identifier”) used to uniquely identify an object’. So successful have they been, that it is now proposed that a DOI be associated with all types of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) – which includes gene bank accessions, breeding lines, released varieties, samples held by farmers or in community seed banks or in informal working collections or research collections, and all other research materials such as certified seeds and purified genetic stocks.

Such a move is designed to provide the Global Information System (GLIS) that is required by Article 17 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGFRA). Developed within the framework of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the objectives of the ITPGFRA* are the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security.

In other words, the Treaty is intended to ease the exchange of seeds and other components of the genetic diversity of the world’s food crops, thereby stimulating research that is essential in the development of climate-smart agriculture and, thus, also to food security. Recognising that nowadays most countries depend strongly upon crops originating elsewhere, the Treaty facilitates the exchange and conservation of crop genetic resources amongst member nations, as well as the fair sharing of benefits arising from their use. But for that to work efficiently, it is essential that such exchanged items be unambiguously identified. Hence the perceived need for something such as a DOI.

As this news item goes to press the international community is being surveyed on the minimal set of mandatory descriptors that must accompany each identifier. But am I missing something? I can understand how an electronic item in the ethereal netherworld of cyberspace can be associated with a DOI, but how can a physical, hold-it-in-your-hand, entity such as a seed be similarly unambiguously ‘tagged’? Surely a packet of seeds can be mis-identified or mis-labelled. Is there an equivalent of a tattooed ‘DOI’ on the seed-coat? Or maybe a unique piece of the seed’s DNA could be used as its DOI-equivalent, like a barcode…? Hmm, could that work?  Still, as long as whatever is decided by those in the know actually works as intended, then anything that helps alleviate hunger and strengthens food security gets my vote.

* In addition to English, officially sanctioned versions of the Treaty are available in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish.

[But why draw the line there, what about each specimen in a herbarium…? – Ed.]