The problem of genetic erosion

The loss of land surface dedicated to Saffron crop has driven genetic erosion in the plant and the obligatory vegetative reproduction. This situation is considered dramatic for the future of the plant at the moment.

Saffron multiplies year by year by means of corms. Because corm multiplication does not induce genome variations, with the exception of random mutations, that in a triploid Saffron population are not easily detectable, it is thought that Saffron material should be similar around the world. Although different commercial products are known that suggest the existence of different Saffron ecotypes or commercial varieties, the actual genetic variability present in C. sativus at worldwide scale is unknown. There is a general suspicion of scarce variation, but no serious effort has been carried out to ascertain this important issue until recently.

The initial step in the development of a breeding programme for any species is to assemble germplasm that may be utilised as a source nursery. That was the landscape when I approached the problem: by 2005 no institution had financially supported the creation and maintenance of a collection representative of the genetic variability of Saffron crop and its allies. On a global level there was not an institutionally protected Crocus collection at the disposal of potential users by this time. The Directory of European Institutions quoted only a bank that preserves a single Crocus accession. No descriptor list has been published in Saffron. The elaboration and publication through Bioversity International (formerly IPGRI) of a complete list of descriptors for characterisation of Crocus was clearly a real need. When generated, the database will be the first one to be available, together with the plant material itself.

The CROCUSBANK project

The principle of “The conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources in agriculture are essential to the sustainable development of agricultural production and of rural areas” prompted my colleagues in some European regions (île de France and Midi-Pyrénées in France, Attiki and Kentriki Makedonia in Greece, Eszak-Alfod in Hungary, Sicilia in Italy, Castilla-La Mancha and Comunidad Valenciana in Spain, and East Midlands in UK) and third states around the world (Turkey, Azerbaijan and Egypt) to join a consortium, under my leadership to carry out a Saffron specific action aiming to contribute to the EU Biodiversity Action Plan for Agriculture. That is the CROCUSBANK project “Genetic Resources of Saffron and Allies (Crocus spp.)”, AGRI GEN RES 018, part of the Community programme on the conservation, characterisation, collection and utilisation of genetic resources in agriculture launched by the Commission.

This programme started in June 2007 and ends in May 2011. Its objectives are:

The CROCUSBANK project deals for the first time with the collection, multiplication, conservation and documentation of Saffron genetic resources. The action aims at the generation of a germplasm bank of genus Crocus. We have established the so-called World Saffron and Crocus Collection (WSCC) settled in Cuenca (Spain), which is the start point of our work on biodiversity resources of Saffron.

At present the germplasm collection consists of 454 accessions representing 50 different Crocus species (including saffron Crocus) and is expected to increase up to more than 600 accessions by the end of CROCUSBANK action (May 2011). The preserved biodiversity of saffron covers a wide range of the genetic variability of the crop and currently consists of 197 accessions from 15 countries: 115 of these come from European cultivation countries, 18 from commercial areas in non EU countries, 56 from regions of minimal relic production and/or from abandon fields and 8 from commercial nurseries. The wild Crocus collection currently comprises 258 accessions: 148 collected from the wild in 12 countries of natural distribution, 24 from donations of public and private institutions and 86 from commercial nurseries.

Thus, the CROCUSBANK collection has already a wide representation of the Crocus germplasm of plausible utility in saffron breeding which has never been achieved before. Additionally, for the first time worldwide it has been created a unique collection which contains a large part of the variability of the saffron crop and wild relatives at global scale for conservation and agricultural common use.

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