Preserving Plant Diversity, One Seed At A Time

Growing up on an Iowa farm, Candice Gardner planned a career in human or animal health. But once a student at Iowa State University, a summer job took her down a different path.

Working with a plant pathology researcher got me hooked on the idea of improving crop production through improving plant host resistance to diseases, insects, stress, plus variety development,” Gardner says.

After wrapping up a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology, she earned a master’s in plant pathology and a doctorate in maize breeding and genetics at the University of Missouri.

Gardner spent 17 years in private industry, first as a maize researcher with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, followed by two years at a biotechnology company. In 1999, she returned to Iowa State to lead the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station (NCRPIS).

“The station provided my previous research program with germplasm, and I was amazed at the wealth of plant genetic resources available,” Gardner says. “My goal coming here was not only to ensure conservation of these resources, but to work to understand their inherent value and help researchers use them more effectively to support food security.”

The NCRPIS, established in Ames in 1948, is one of four plant introduction stations in the United States—key components of the National Plant Germplasm System. The facility stores more than 1,700 plant species and 53,000 different plant populations in climate-controlled refrigerators and freezers, including many important field, vegetable and ornamental crops.

Researchers around the world can obtain plant materials at no cost. “Last year we provided more than 40,000 items to fulfill research needs,” Gardner says. “Unlike a library, the seeds are not checked back in.”

That’s why when the seed inventory of any variety or its germination runs low, staff grow the plants at the station to replenish seed stocks.

The NCRPIS is a joint venture of the USDA-ARS, the ISU Agricultural Experiment Station, the ISU Department of Agronomy and the agricultural experiment stations of the 12 North Central Region states.

Gardner oversees the activities of nine full-time ISU employees, 21 full-time USDA-ARS employees, a host of part- time students and two graduate students.

The agronomy department is home to both the ISU and federal employees. “The interactions with faculty and staff provide opportunities for research collaborations, student training and sharing of infrastructure and equipment to our mutual benefit,” Gardner says. “These interactions help us maintain and increase our relevance to the research community.”

Kendall Lamkey, chair of the agronomy department, praises Gardner’s efforts to collect, maintain and provide germplasm on request, despite the challenges. “Everyone thinks germplasm is important and should be preserved for the future, but funding has not kept pace with the need,” he says. “Candy frequently has to set priorities, because everything that needs to be done, cannot be done. From my perspective, she has done a great job.”