Collecting wild Miscanthus germplasm and research partners in Asia

While collecting plant material for crop breeding, a team from Aberystwyth University also thought hard about the human side of their work.

In 2006, a European team made an expedition to Asia to collect wild germplasm of Miscanthus. Germplasm is any living material; it could be seeds or rhizomes. The reason they went there is that Miscanthus is a C4 perennial rhizomatous grass. It could be useful for breeding an environmentally adaptable, resilient and high-yielding bioenergy crop. However, simply going to Asia and grabbing what you like isn’t good practice. Lin S Huang and colleagues have written about how they implemented the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The objectives of the CBD are threefold:

  1. the conservation of biological diversity,
  2. the sustainable use of its components, and
  3. the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.

“Conservation of diversity is one of the paramount priorities of the CBD,” said Huang and colleagues in the Annals of Botany. “Miscanthus × giganteus is a sterile clone which has limited value for conservation apart from any epigenetic diversity that has appeared during somatic propagation. The selection of new and fertile wild germplasm in Asia and its transfer to the UK described here has increased the number of places where ex situ conservation of Miscanthus germplasm is being undertaken. This is particularly important for a previously undomesticated wild species such as Miscanthus which is at risk of loss of diversity as some areas are cleared for other land uses.”

Schematic depicting the steps taken in bringing wild Miscanthus accessions out of Asia for ex situ research, breeding and conservation. Source: Huang et al. 2019

The team prepared for the expedition with extensive planning, preparing the quarantine area at Aberystwyth University, identifications of likely sites for germplasm and getting permissions to enter from the landowners before the first sample was collected. “We worked closely with Defra and international partners in Asia to develop bi-lateral agreements containing mutually agreed terms (MATs) consistent with the framework of the CBD,” the authors said in their paper. “Agreements signed with Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese institutions covered access to the specifically collected and defined germplasm for scientific evaluation and exploitation.”

“These agreements enabled access to the wild Miscanthus germplasm in Asia and their transfer to Europe for research and exploitation. They also pave the way for other institutions to request the access of live materials of this collection via appropriate contractual arrangements with Aberystwyth University and other relevant parties. Any third party wishing to access the ‘collected materials’ will require a bilateral agreement with Aberystwyth University that respects and takes into consideration the terms of the CBD agreements that Aberystwyth University has signed with three Asian partners. For example, for research purposes, the third parties can request access to collected materials through a research-only material transfer agreement (MTA) with Aberystwyth University.”

There is potentially a substantial revenue stream from royalties if the teams develop a successful biofuel. But it’s not all about dollars, euros and yen said the team. “[N]on-monetary benefit sharing includes joint research efforts and publications, knowledge transfer, joint post-graduate student exchange, sharing research results and access to state-of-the-art facilities, such as the UK National Plant Phenomics Centre based at IBERS, which have been shown to have an impact on technological advances in Miscanthus research by our Asia partners.”

The end goal of the project is a Miscanthus-based grass that can produce better biofuel. However, it’s not just a matter of getting energy out of the plant. The researchers are looking for something else, in line with the Convention on Biological Diversity. “[I]f hybrid seed production can be induced to occur at sufficiently high efficiency and low cost between parents that give rise to high-yielding hybrids, then a seed-based scalable industry, which is much more cost-effective than a clonal one based on M. × giganteus, can become a reality and one in which rewards can be justly returned to the countries where the parental germplasm originated.”