GRIN-U: free online content for genebank staff and educators

May 24, 2023


In a field that’s as highly specialized as agricultural genebanking, transferring knowledge from one generation to the next can be a challenge. GRIN-U ( is an online learning platform that seeks to address this challenge by providing free learning content for genebank staff around the world.

Sustaining a global network of genebanks that conserve plant genetic resources (PGR) requires knowledgeable staff with expertise in acquiring, maintaining, regenerating, evaluating, documenting, and distributing germplasm accessions. Genebank management is a specialized and highly skilled profession.

And yet, until quite recently there were very few educational materials openly available for would-be genebank staff. Those materials that did exist were scattered across disparate online sources (such as the Crop Trust and CGIAR websites). Genebank personnel tended to gain most of their skills through on-the-job training.

Launched in 2021, the GRIN-U website is the first of its kind. The platform is a joint effort between Colorado State University, Iowa State University, and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which is the in-house research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA-ARS is tasked with managing the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), a network of 22 genebank locations that store germplasm accessions of agriculturally important plant species in the U.S.

“We anticipated that there would be a significant turnover in NPGS employees in the near future,” explains Gayle Volk, plant physiology researcher at USDA and one of the project coordinators for GRIN-U. “Many of the retiring personnel had been with their genebank for decades and we knew that it would be critical to pass information to the next generation of genebank members.”

In 2018, Volk and her colleagues organized a workshop in Colorado to discuss solutions for the anticipated turnover of genebank staff. Representatives from genebanks, universities, NGOs, and the private sector came together, and identified the need to develop a multi-faceted program that included formal university courses and an online resource library of learning materials.

The following year, they circulated an online survey with the PGR community to determine the needs of specific user groups. “Perhaps the most noteworthy result was the high level of interest we received across many different disciplines and audiences,” explains Volk. “The training topics of highest priority to the respondents included crop wild relatives, phenotyping, genotyping, and associated information, among others.”

One of the most exciting things about GRIN-U is that it’s open access. “GRIN-U content is freely available for use by anyone, anywhere,” says Volk. “Although GRIN-U has been developed through a grant, the website will continue to be hosted by the USDA-ARS for the long term, even when the grant has finished.”

GRIN-U includes a resource library of standalone content (like videos and eBook chapters) as well as a series of formal online courses offered through Colorado State University (CSU). These courses are geared toward upper undergraduate or graduate students, as well as genebank community members. Notably, participation does not require registration in a degree program at CSU. “We have participants from countries around the world, which results in very interesting online discussion board postings.” Course registration information is available through

The team behind GRIN-U wants to see their platform become the go-to resource for education on PGR, especially as it relates to plant genetic resources conservation and use. “We hope that we can partner with DivSeek to develop valuable educational content particularly with respect to genebank genetics/genomics and phenotyping/phenomics,” says Volk. “We welcome collaborations for new content development.”

DivSeek Executive Director, Graham King, has this to say: “through DivSeek, there is scope to draw in and share a wider range of expertise and use-cases from around the globe, including on topics of increasing interest and relevance such as management and tracking of genebank-derived materials and DSI (digital sequence information), as well as challenges associated with ABS (access and benefit sharing), that also align with the scope of the MOU between DivSeek and the ITPGRFA.