It began with one corn field in the middle of Ohio. A strange type of armyworm had been eating corn leaves.  Hank Ercheeph, a farmer, had seen the pest before but never with the corn hybrids he was now using.  He remembered when he had bought the new corn seeds, it had promised "built-in pest protection." So why had it stopped working?  In early 2000, the Agriculture Research Center (ARC) had been hopeful.  "Recently, the scientists determined that the gene they seek is Mir1, responsible for making the protein 33kD cysteine proteinase.  When hungry armyworms munch corn leaves and ingest the protein, they may stop growing or starve.  The scientists hope to insert the protein-making gene into susceptible corn hybrids or other crops that are the targets of hungry armyworms and other destructive caterpillar pests," a news release had said.  And the scientists had come through.  This revolutionary corn hybrid was used in almost all the corn fields across America.  Hank called another local farmer with a neighboring field. He, too, had noticed the problem. Troubled, Hank alerted the USDA. Apparently it was not only those two fields-- and even worse, not only Ohio. Two researchers within the Midwest branch of the ARC were put on alert. Dr. S. Pinach  and Dr. Zookeeni met to discuss it.
    "God damn it, this is serious, Zookeeni. I've never seen armyworms eat corn leaves so fast.  Too bad toxaphene insecticide is illegal in so many states, that stuff might have controlled the larvae," said Dr. Pinach, "What are we going to do?"
    "We could call the Gainsville ARC," replied Dr. Zookeeni, "Aren't they working on a chemical that will kill the larvae?"
    "They aren't even close to being ready to release it-- no, that won't work."
    "We could try to get that Bacillus thuringiensis spray that Ecogen created-- that would probably destroy the suckers," Dr. Zookeeni suggested.
    "But we would have to spray it on all the corn fields from the Atlantic up to the Rocky Mountains.  Imagine what that insecticide in such large quantities  would do to the environment, that'll be the problem with using any pathogen in this situation."
    The two researchers spent the rest of the evening, late into the night exploring possible ways of curbing the armyworm.  But it was to no avail, the armyworm was moving too fast.  The ARC could not figure out why 33kD cysteine proteinase had no effect on the armyworms, perhaps a mutation had occurred, making the protein ineffective.  Later that week the two researchers met again. With grim faces they looked at each other.  Dr. S. Pinach cleared his throat.
    "It's useless, Zookeeni-- there are only a few crops remaining."
    "I can't believe the President called this a National Disaster," Dr. Zookeeni said.
    "God, can you imagine what this means for the country's economy?" Dr. S. Pinach replied.
    "What are we going to do?"
    "There is nothing we can do about this year's crop, it's futile at this point," Dr. S. Pinach answered.
    "But it will attack next year's crop too-- corn prices are going to skyrocket."
    "The farmer's will just have to find new seeds-- and you can bet that if corn prices go up, pesticide prices will go up too-- and of course pesticides will be healthy... ...Wait...why didn't I think of this before?" Dr. S. Pinach said, " The National Seed Storage Laboratory."
    "In Fort Collins, Colorado? Dr. Zookeeni asked, "No you mean the National Germplasm Resources Laboratory-- to make new hybrids."
    "Zookeeni, you know that they can't just produce hybrids like that-- the worms will still eat the plants, it could take years to find one that would work. No, I really do mean the NSSL, they have over 8,500 species of seeds in their banks- there must be some corn plant that is resistant to this new armyworm."
    "At this point it's worth a call at least. I'll do it right now," Dr. S. Pinach said as he picked up the phone and asked his secretary to place the call.  It began ringing. After ten rings, Dr. S. Pinach looked up at Dr. Zookeeni.
    "I don't think anyone's there, maybe they aren't open."
    "Hell, it's eleven in the morning on a Thursday, where would they--"
    "Hold on, someone picked up."
    "NSSL, may I help you?" a man asked in a breathless voice.
    "Hello, I am calling from the Midwest branch of the ARC, may I please speak to the director of the Laboratory?" Dr. S. Pinach asked.
    "This is he," responded the voice.
    "Oh hello, I didn't realize my secretary called your private line."
    "This is the main line, I am afraid that there is no secretary right now, we are a bit understaffed," the director said, "I have to manage the phone right now."
    "I am sorry to hear that, I am Stuart Pinach, a researcher with ARS and I was hoping you could help us.  I am sure that you are well aware of the emergency facing the country's corn plants.  Would it be possible to begin testing to find seeds that would be resistance to the this particular armyworm." There was a long silence on the other end of the line.
    "I am sorry, but at this point the NSSL is just a building full of decaying seeds, the last executive administration didn't care greatly for the nation's seeds and the meager appropriations that we were receiving have been reduced even more. Why do you think there is no secretary-- we are cutting corners wherever we can, anything."
    "I am sorry to hear that...uhm...what if we brought in our own team?" Dr. S. Pinach asked.
    "You can if you want but it won't do any good, most of the seeds are dead anyway, and many are just piled in cardboard boxes, it would take you years to find anything," the director said. "You might try going to other countries, Mexico's seedbank is pretty good, they might have something, hey mention that you came here first, that'll give em' a laugh, we're the joke of the international seedbank community."
    "Well...thank you, I wish you luck," Dr. S. Pinach said.
    "Humph, now the country, and that government will realize just how important the NSSL was," the director muttered.
    "Uhm, yes, good-bye," Dr. S. Pinach said, quietly he hung up the phone. All he and Dr. Zookeeni could do was look at each other.

This is a fictional story of the future-- but remember if we don't start acknowledging the importance of preserving seeds it may become reality.


Source consulted for scientific information:: "Crops Diseases and Pests" by W. Paul Williams (January 28, 1997) from  Agriculture Research
Picture from "The Maize Page" of Iowa State University