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South Africa launches national biodiversity biobank

Coordinating mechanism aims to bring order and improved research access to collections dating back centuries

South Africa has launched a central system to coordinate up to a million biological samples collected in the country over the past 200 years and scattered across its universities, research facilities and national parks.

The collections represent a priceless resource for the country, which is one of the most biologically rich in the world. They range from live cultures of bacteria and single-celled organisms to blood taken from iconic wildlife, such as rhinos and leopards, as well as seeds and germplasm from wild and domesticated plants.

Over time, these collections have become inaccessible, sparking trust and credibility issues, according to Michelle Hamer, a zoologist by training who leads infrastructure development at the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

“Until recently, everybody was working in isolation. Each biobank had to find their own way of handling their challenges, their own ways of collecting and storing and analysing samples,” Hamer said.

That fragmentation is the driving force behind the coordinating mechanism dubbed Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa, which is hosted by the National Biodiversity Institute and led by Hamer. Launched on 1 March, the BBSA aims to increase the range and quality of samples while improving access for research through a central data portal.

“The way we manage our biodiversity affects our economy, our environment and our society. And we can’t manage what we don’t know,” said Shonisani Munzhedzi, chief executive of the National Biodiversity Institute.

The global importance of South Africa’s biodiversity riches means the BBSA will have an impact around the world, added Imraan Patel, head of research development and support at the Department of Science and Innovation. The department is providing the funding for the BBSA.