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  • Cornell AgriTech
  • School of Integrative Plant Science

Zachary Stansell, Ph.D. ’20, is a geneticist, horticulturalist and curator of the hemp crop collection of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service at Cornell AgriTech. When he was a Ph.D. student at Cornell AgriTech, Stansell researched brassica crops and became interested in the enormous amount of variability in broccoli. This experience deepened his passion for the conservation of crop genetic resources. Stansell grew up in coastal South Carolina on a shrimp farm and has learned he much prefers vegetable farming to seafood farming.

Describe your responsibilities at the USDA? What does a typical day look like for you?

As a germplasm curator for the National Plant Germplasm System, my work is not terribly different than that of a librarian’s in that I manage large collections of seeds and their associated “metadata.” My main responsibilities are to collect and conserve valuable genetic resources from around the world, generate new seeds, distribute seeds internationally, collect large amounts of data, and maintain a database/website that tracks all this information. 

Why is the USDA-ARS seed collection at AgriTech?

Cornell AgriTech has one of over 20 different gene banks that are part of the USDA National Plant Germplasm System. Different crops are maintained at different locations based on many reasons, but the climate and available infrastructure are, of course, important considerations. For example, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to keep the coffee collection in upstate New York, but it’s a wonderful place for crops like cold-hardy grapes and buckwheat. Historically, the apple collection has been the flagship collection in Geneva, although this is quickly being supplanted by the hemp collection, which was initiated in Geneva in 2022. 

How many seeds are in the collection?

Between the hemp and vegetable projects, we have 376,180,237 seeds kept within 28,105 seed lots. 

What kind of varieties are in the collection?

We have major crop collections of hemp, apple, grape, tomato, brassica, onion, winter squash and many specialty vegetable crops, like radishes, asparagus and ground cherry. Many of these “accessions” are very old, cultivated varieties called “landraces.” We don’t really use the word “heirloom” to describe these varieties because it’s a poorly defined term, but this is generally what most people think a landrace is. 

We have some seeds lots that go back approximately 100 years. Here’s a tomato variety from 1931 in Beijing Shi, China, below. Scientists can still order these seeds, although it has been regenerated by curators multiple times since then. 

You are wearing a winter parka in the photo above. What does that have to do with the seed collection?

Seeds are alive, so therefore they have a shelf life. We keep our long-term seed storage chamber very cold (-20 C or -4 F) to slow down their biological process and therefore extend their longevity. It’s an extremely hard job to regenerate these seed lots. One way to think about it is that the longer we can store the seeds, the more effectively we can complete our mission. 

Do you ever work with the ‘doomsday’ seed collection in Norway?

The real name of it is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and yes, we do work with this organization. Specifically, we consider the seeds in our collection to be a priceless resource, and therefore it’s extremely important to keep backup copies of these seeds in multiple locations. Generally, once we regenerate a particular variety, we send a portion of the new seeds to another National Plant Germplasm System lab in Fort Collins, Colorado. We can flag certain seed lots that our colleagues there will include in a “black box” that will be stored in Svalbard.

Share any other fun facts about the collection.

There are so many! Our collection holds different varieties of hemp from almost 40 countries, and we’ve been able to support a team that has generated the first cannabis “pan-genome.” We’ve been able to provide seeds to people from displaced communities (for example, local varieties of pumpkins from Myanmar and Nepal), we are helping a team learn about how mycorrhiza cooperate with hemp, and another group learn how and why hemp could become a very important fiber crop.