Modern agriculture is based largely on a single-crop system. Endless rows of the same crop cultivated and harvested fill thousands of farm acres around the world. However, pests and diseases are a recurring and common threat, and they can be more than just a nuisance. When they affect food crops, they can cause significant losses to farmers and threaten food security.
Wild crop relatives of modern crop foods––apples, bananas, corn, soybeans––could hold the key to addressing this challenge. The genetic diversity held in these wild crop relatives is important for future crop development in order to improve disease and environmental-change resistance in cultivated crops. As research continues to move toward finding a solution that can result in a more sustainable agriculture system in the future, studying and preserving genetic diversity is one of the keystones of plant conservation efforts at the Garden.
Knowing Where To Look
The mountains of Central Asia are considered a biodiversity “hot spot” and are home to at least 1,500 endemic plant species, or species that don’t occur anywhere else in the world. Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country landlocked in the mountains of Central Asia, and most of the country is part of this hot spot. The total flora of Kyrgyzstan contains about 4100 species; 400 are endemic and 105 have been identified as threatened or endangered. Kyrgyzstan’s tree diversity is nationally and globally important, particularly the broadleaved forests of the Tien Shan region, which have been designated by WWF as a Global 200 ecoregion and a priority for conservation.
This unique ecosystem found above the steppe zone in warm sheltered coves is dominated by walnut trees (Juglans regia) and contains many crop wild relatives. Malus niedzwetzkyana and Malus sieversii are ancestors of the cultivated apple. Prunus bifrons is distantly related to apricot, almond, peach, and plum; and Pyrus korshinskyi is a wild relative of the domestic pear. Many of these species have very restricted and/or sporadic distributions and are under threat from firewood collection, overgrazing, and fruit and nut harvesting.
Need To Protect
About 90% of the fruit and walnut forest area has been lost in the last 50 years, and remaining fragments continue to be threatened by a rising human population near protected areas. Conservation of these culturally and ecologically important tree species is critical to sustaining this unique ecosystem, which the rural population of Kyrgyzstan relies on for fuel, food, and income.
In partnership with the Gareev Botanical Garden (GBG), the Garden is working to develop an effective ex situ conservation program to support and enhance in situ conservation efforts for threatened tree species of the Tien Shan forest. The goal is to provide the appropriate equipment and training in best practices at GBG for creating a well-documented and genetically diverse living collection to safeguard Kyrgyzstan’s endemic and endangered species of trees and shrubs.
In the future, Garden and GBG staff will work collaboratively to locate, identify, and collect a broad spectrum of genetic diversity for wild crop relatives of the Tien Shan region including Malus sieversii, Malus niedzwetzkyana, Prunus bifrons, Prunus x ferganica, Pyrus asiae-mediae, and Pyrus korshinskyi. Seed from these species will be added to the Garden’s Seed Bank for long term preservation. Both institutions will conduct propagation and seed storage trials on any species collected during this project, and all propagation data will be collected and shared for each of the project species. Another goal is to also target other endangered species native to this region, such as tulips.
Andrea Androuais, Managing Content Editor