The 6,000 varieties of apples lost in the United States over the past century could have held the genetic key to producing better fruit, according to Geoffrey Hawtin, director general of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute.
There were about 7,500 varieties of apple in the US in the 19th century, he says. "Today there are only 1,500. We'll never know, but the genetic makeup of the lost species might have been useful to us today or in the future to create new types of apple, perhaps resistant to disease or capable of growing in particular conditions."
The apple story is how Dr Hawtin likes to explain his institute's mission. Its job is to co-ordinate and promote plant genetics research and conservation and its application to practical agricultural and environmental situations.
The institute's headquarters just outside Rome is the nerve centre of a network of 16 research institutes worldwide under the aegis of the consultative group on international agricultural research, an organisation supported by 49 member countries, the World Bank and UN agencies.
Dr Hawtin, who graduated from Cambridge in genetics and plant breeding and has a PhD from Makerere University in Uganda, says: "We are combating the enormous problem of species that are dying out. This means first identifying endangered species. Then we try to build up gene banks for future use by conserving the endangered plant.
"This is done with a variety of techniques including deep freezing and drying out the material. So if tomorrow there is a need for, say, an apple which will grow in an area infested by a certain disease or in a particularly difficult environment, the scientists can use combinations of the genetic types available to make up a new apple that will prosper in those conditions."
Dr Hawtin is particularly enthusiastic about the possibilities of molecular genetic technologies. "Two apples may look and taste exactly the same, but on a molecular level they may have important differences which give particular results in a new species that will need to resist new diseases or conditions."
A growing field is the political and legal aspects of biological diversity. The Rio convention recognises national rights on biological diversity, but so far no comprehensive legal system has been established to regulate changes of genetic material. "Important talks are under way in various world forums," says Dr Hawtin. "It is the politicians who are talking, but the subject is extremely technical, complex and in continuous revolution, IPGRI is providing the technical input to make sure that the solutions which are researched will work in practice. When problems like genetic rights, copyright and international exchange rules have been finally regulated, we will be able to begin work on a global system for the conservation and exchange of genetic resources."
The IPGRI has a multinational staff of about 70, half of them scientists. It has exchanges with universities all over the world; the oldest link is with Birmingham University.
Dr Hawtin added: "We have been working with Birmingham for 20 years, from the days when training in plant genetics was virtually nonexistent. Now, in conjunction with Birmingham, we have put together a syllabus for the study of plant genetics, conservation and breeding which we then give to local universities. We are singling out one or two universities in each region of the world."