A diverse portfolio: Seed bank works to protect genes of WNC plants

It’s been just about 10 years since the day Joe-Ann McCoy, then living in Iowa and working as the national medicinal plant curator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, got a life-changing call from her home region of Western North Carolina.

It was the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville, and they wanted to know if she’d be interested in trading her secure government job for a position funded by grants and contracts, moving to the Asheville area, and starting up a seed bank.

“There was nothing here. There wasn’t a single lab,” McCoy said.

Since taking on the project in early 2008, McCoy, Ph.D., has built from the ground up a program that now includes three labs and the lofty mission of conserving, studying and identifying uses for the region’s proliferation of native plant species.

“It serves numerous purposes,” McCoy said of the seed bank, called the N.C. Arboretum Germplasm Repository. “It’s long-term conservation, it’s economic development, it’s finding nutritive compounds for potential growers in the region to grow as crops. It can be drug discovery. It can be endophyte discovery. The whole collection turns into a research tool.”

So far, McCoy — assisted by one staff technician and a rotating cast of volunteers and student interns — has preserved seed from about 2,000 species of plants, most of them stored in vacuum-sealed bags filed in a freezer set to -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Those seeds are known as “orthodox” seeds and account for about 95 percent of plant species. The remaining 5 percent, known as “recalcitrant” seed, must be stored at a substantially lower temperature to remain viable — they are preserved in a container of liquid nitrogen.

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