DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now we bring you a tale of science and heroic courage. Researchers have spent six years fanning out across the globe gathering thousands of samples. Their goal - to preserve genetic diversity that could help key crops survive in the face of climate change. As NPR's Maria Godoy reports, the work has put these scientists in some extreme situations.
MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Two years ago, Hannes Dempewolf found himself in Nepal.
HANNES DEMPEWOLF: We were in the rainforest, there at the foot of the Himalayas.
GODOY: He was riding on the back of an elephant to avoid snakes on the ground - and to scare away any tigers that might be lurking about. Then, all of a sudden, an attack from above.
DEMPEWOLF: There were leeches dropping on us from all directions.
DEMPEWOLF: Leeches - like, you know, the blood-sucking leeches.
GODOY: Now, Dempewolf is a plant geneticist, and this is far from where he thought he'd be when he got his Ph.D. But as a senior scientist with Crop Trust, he's been overseeing an ambitious project. More than a hundred scientists in 25 countries have been venturing out to collect wild relatives of domesticated crops - like lentils, potatoes, chickpeas and rice - that people rely on around the world. Some of these wild relatives exist only in remote places, like a wild rice species that grows in a river in northern Costa Rica.
GRISELDA ARRIETA ESPINOZA: (Speaking Spanish).
GODOY: Researcher Griselda Arrieta Espinoza of the University of Costa Rica says she and her colleagues had to travel by boat to collect the rice. Was it dangerous? - I asked.
ARRIETA: (Speaking Spanish).
GODOY: "Uh, yes," she says, "because that river, it was home to crocodiles."
But she says it was worth it. The wild rice relative they collected is resistant to a fungus that attacks domesticated rice grown around the world. And she says scientists in Brazil have already crossed that wild species, called Oryza glumaepatula, with domesticated rice to increase yields.
The overall goal of the Crop Trust project is to make sure that this kind of valuable genetic diversity is preserved in seed banks before wild crop relatives disappear as urban development encroaches on once wild habitats. Dempewolf says that's already happening.
DEMPEWOLF: Some of the populations that they were hoping to collect, when they reached the areas where they had seen populations before, they had disappeared.
GODOY: And this project is urgently needed, says Steven Tanksley. He's a professor emeritus of plant breeding at Cornell University.
STEVEN TANKSLEY: If we're going to have a sustainable world with a sustainable environment, we have to produce a lot more food per hectare than we ever have in the past. And I think people don't really grasp that, the urgency of it.
GODOY: And without the genetic diversity of wild crop relatives, he says the world will have little chance of keeping up with growing demand for food.
Maria Godoy, NPR News.
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