What is FIGS?

FIGS – or Focused Identification of Germplasm Strategy – is a new technique for searching agricultural genebanks that helps crop breeders and their managers to achieve faster and better targeted pinpointing of improved crops. This approach helps genebank managers, crop breeders, development agencies and donors to improve the effectiveness of crop improvement programs.

The FIGS approach provides breeders with an efficient short-cut to a best-bet list of promising accessions. FIGS has the potential to greatly reduce the resources required to mine genetic resource collections. It saves time and it saves money – and should be routinely used in the selection of screening genetic resource collections.  

FIGS uses cutting-edge applied Bayesian mathematics and geographical information data to help plant breeders more effectively sort through the millions of plant samples conserved in the world’s gene banks. Put simply, it facilitates the rapid identification of traits that make crop varieties tolerant to drought, excessive heat or cold, and resistance to insect pests and a variety of crop diseases that reduce field yields in low-income and more developed countries.

The plant genetic resource identification approached presently deployed range from ‘lucky dip’ to a ‘core collection’ concept which aims to capture as much genetic diversity as possible, using a small sub-set of 5-10% of a total collection. A core – or reference – collection offers the benefit of easy-to-manage sets of plant genetic material. But, many breeders are wary of this approach, as it does not necessarily deliver the material that is most likely to contain the specific traits required by them as they look to improve crop performance.

The method uses detailed information about the environment from which plant genetic samples were collected to precisely predict where plant traits – such as disease resistance or adaptability to extreme weather conditions – are likely to have evolved. Accessions from these areas have a high probability to contain the traits and genes of interest. From this calculation are assembled smaller subsets of genetic material that have a high potential to contain the plant traits that breeders need to develop their robust new varieties.

FIGS has been developed, tested, and refined over the past seven years by a research team from ICARDA and partner institutions, including the Vavilov Institute (Russia), the Nordgen genebank (Nordic region), the Australian Winter Cereals Collection (AWCC), the University of Helsinki, Concordia University, the National Institute of Agricultural Research of Tunisia (INRAT), and the National Institute of Agricultural Research of Morocco (INRA). In more recent years, a number of scientists participating in the newly formed genetic resources and climate change platform with the support of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS) expanded the potential of genetic resources, not only to adapt to, but also to mitigate some of the effects of climate change.