Coming Full Circle with Maize

From studying wild cucurbits in Spain to judging the “Largest Maize Ear in the World” contest, Dr. Denise Costich’s storied career has taken her around the globe.

The recently retired genebank manager of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) took time out of her action-packed retirement to speak with the Crop Trust about her long, eventful career.

How did you become a genebank manager?

Mine is one of those accidental stories. More like serendipity, actually [laughs]. As a grad student, I was studying the evolution of plant breeding systems at the University of Iowa. I spent a lot of time in the herbarium looking for an organism to study and stumbled across an obscure review paper from the 1950s that mentioned a little wild species in the cucumber family with some really interesting reproductive properties. So, I ended up going to Spain for several years to work on that wild cucurbit.

After a few years as a professor, I jumped back into research. That led me to becoming a plant biologist at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), working on maize genetics. In 2012, a partner from CIMMYT visited our lab. They were advertising for a new genebank manager, and the visitor told me she knew the perfect person for the job—me!

Although I had been in a maize genetics lab for about 12 years at that point, I had no training in genetic resources. One of the things I came to understand was that everything I learned during my career came into play as a genebank manager. You’re solving problems and you need to pull together different types of knowledge to solve those problems. I thoroughly enjoyed that.

What did you find most exciting about managing a genebank?

When I started at CIMMYT, I had been an academic scientist for my whole career. I was at a point where I felt like I needed to give back in some way. The idea of working more closely with farmers really appealed to me—providing them with useful materials and being part of the worldwide genetic resources community. But when I arrived at the CIMMYT genebank, I realized that there was very little contact with smallholder farmers. The vast majority of the clients for our seed were breeders and academics. So, that was an area I dug into during my tenure, which was just a pure joy.

You have led initiatives to share genebank seeds with the original donor communities [see “Back to where they came from”]. Can you tell us a little bit about that? 

When I first came to CIMMYT, I was always asking myself whether what we are doing in the genebank world is any better than what farmers already do to conserve crop genetic diversity? Farmers have always done what is known as in situ conservation—meaning that they save some seed at the end of each harvest for the next planting season. They actively select the best seeds for their purposes. There has always been this debate among researchers about which is better: in situ in farmers’ fields or ex situ conservation in genebanks? In my opinion, the two processes are complementary and, used together, can create a very strong, more secure system than each individually. Historically, though, the two systems haven’t connected very much.

So, bringing genebank seeds back to the communities where they came from was a way to bring these systems together?

Exactly. While I was at CIMMYT, I visited the headquarters of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. The curator there spoke about “rematriation” or bringing seeds back to their communities of origin. I thought it was a cool idea. There’s a term, “repatriation,” when a genebank returns a collection of seeds or other genetic materials to the national genebank of the country of origin. But that’s just a transfer from one institution to another. When I came home from Iowa, I talked to my collaborator at CIMMYT about what I’d heard at Seed Savers. From there, “rematriation” became part of our lexicon for describing what we were trying to do. Ultimately, the idea is that instead of having these two silos—ex situ and in situ conservation—we wanted to combine them and create a more flexible, fluid, system of conservation.

And, we just have to ask, how did you end up judging a maize ear size contest?

For a project, we happened to be working in Jala in central Mexico, where they have this annual contest. I was recruited as a judge in 2013 and kept judging the contest almost every year until I left CIMMYT.

You have had a very influential career but are still active despite recently retiring. What have you been up to lately?

I recently joined a CIMMYT project in the mountains of Guatemala. There were lots of Community Seed Reserves, or CSRs, in the area, but no one on the project was actually working with them, so I flew down to Guatemala to visit the CSRs. Each CSR had a little hydrometer up on a wall to show the relative humidity. The humidity was just so high. It was 80%, 90%. In one case, the arrow had gone to over 100% and gotten stuck there.

But you can’t store seeds long term in such high-humidity conditions. I started thinking about how we could help solve this problem. You can’t just use a dehumidifier because they don’t have great access to reliable electricity in these remote seed banks. So, we used desiccant beads—it’s a great technology for this kind of situation. We published a paper on that whole process a couple months ago.

So, this was a great opportunity to actually connect conservation techniques with farmers’ needs. Again, breaking down those silos. I’m super proud of what we have accomplished with this project.