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SA launches Africa’s first Biobanking research project to preserve biodiversity

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SANBI launches Africa’s first Biobanking research project at a forum in Zwartkops, close to Johannesburg, South Africa, yesterday. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

SA launches Africa’s first Biobanking research project to preserve biodiversity

Amidst international calls to preserve biodiversity the South Africa National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) launched the Biobanking South Africa (BBSA) research infrastructure project yesterday.

Established as part of the Department of Science & Innovation’s Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) and co-ordinated by SANBI, the BBSA provides a coordinating structure across several of South Africa’s existing biodiversity biobanks, with the main aim of increasing the range and quality of samples stored and/or distributed and increasing and improving access for research and development.

The BBSA provide a system of repositories of genetic resources, including reproductive tissues such as seeds, egg and sperm, other tissues including blood, DNA extracts and microbial cultures, representing species, strains, varieties and breeds present in South Africa, including domesticated crops and livestock, that can be used to support research, capacity development and the development of new or improved products and practices in the fields of agriculture, human health and well-being, environmental management and conservation biology.

According to Professor Michelle Hamer, Project Lead for the BBSA, SANBI and the BBSA does have ambitions to expand this initiative across Africa and on a global scale.

“While the launch certainly does not signal the start of our work, it is a chance to celebrate our progress and to look forward to future achievements,” said Professor Hamer at yesterday’s event, which was attended by WhyAfrica.

The launch formed part of a three-day Biodiversity Biobank SA Forum which took place in Johannesburg from 28 February to 2 March 2023.

South Africa: a biodiversity hotspot  (SA launches Africa’s first Biobanking research project to preserve biodiversity)

South Africa is known for its big game and other wildlife which attracts millions of tourists every year, boosting the economy and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But there’s more to the country than just the Big Five. South Africa is considered as one of the 17 most megadiverse countries globally, with not only exceptional species richness, but also exceptional levels of uniqueness (endemism), and biome and ecosystem diversity.

Three of the world’s global biodiversity hotspots, recognised on the basis of levels of endemism and also threat, are located in South Africa.

The country has over 2000 plant species that are used for medicinal purposes, about a third of which (656 species) are traded commercially.

And the country’s seas straddle three oceans (the Atlantic, Indian and Southern Oceans), with more than 630 marine species, mostly fish, harvested by commercial, subsistence and recreational fisheries from South Africa’s 3100 km long coastline.

Preserving biodiversity is critical as climate change and extreme weather events continue to have a severe impact around the world. A large percentage of Africa’s genetic resources are currently stored in foreign countries where it is used for research and in some cases its uses are commercialised.

Preserving and curating Africa’s genetic resources are critical for the development of the continent. At the same time, indigenous local knowledge needs to be protected and commercialised. In South Africa, for example, the Khoi and San communities were rewarded recently for their knowledge about the Rooibos plant, which is sold around the world as Rooibos tea.

“Funding and the recent energy crisis in South Africa remain a serious challenge. We need large freezers and other facilities that requires constant power, and loadsheddding has brought a fair amount of challenges, together with a shortage of skills, procurement issues and in some cases legal compliance,” said Hamer.

“The BBSA Launch and Forum provides an opportunity for strengthening the BBSA community, for sharing knowledge and expertise relating to biodiversity biobanking, and for advancing the cause of the biobanking community,” Hamer added.

Structure of the BBSA: The Core & Affiliates (SA launches Africa’s first Biobanking research project to preserve biodiversity)

The set up and planning phase for the BBSA involved consultation with a range of biodiversity biobanks and other stakeholders to develop the conceptual framework. The BBSA is a distributed form of infrastructure, with two types of participation for biobanks:

  •       Core biobanks, which support the concept of open access, that agree to implement the standards and procedures developed, that contribute to achieving the objectives of the BBSA, and that will be eligible for resource allocations through the BBSA, and
  •       Affiliated biobanks that participate in some BBSA activities and initiatives, but that will operate according to their own access policies and implement their own standards, and that will not be eligible for resourcing from the BBSA.

BBSA: The Core Biobanks  (SA launches Africa’s first Biobanking research project to preserve biodiversity)

To date the following institutions have agreed to participate as Core biobanks:

  •       SANParks (Veterinary Wildlife Services biobanks at Skukuza and Kimberley),
  •       SAIAB (Aquatic biodiversity biobank),
  •       SANBI for the Plant Biobank (indigenous plant material for DNA extraction and DNA extracts, Herpetology biobank, Indigenous Plant / Millennium Seed Bank, and potentially also the National Zoological Gardens biobank),
  •       Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (National Plant Genetic Resources Center, Grootfontein Biobank for SA sheep and goat breeds),
  •       University of Free State’s Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology for the Yeast Culture Collection,
  •       University of Western Cape’s Institute of Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics (IMBM),
  •       Agricultural Research Council for the following biobanks: Crop Protection, Plant Microbiology, South African Rhizobium Culture Collection, National Collections: Mycology, Entomology & Arachnology, Bacteriology; Vegetable & Ornamental Plants (Ipomoea (Sweet potato), Genebank for Indigenous Vegetables, Genebank for Commercial Vegetables, In vitro potato genebank collection, In vitro genebank collection of other vegetatively propagated crops).
South Africa is considered as one of the 17 most megadiverse countries globally, with not only exceptional species richness, but also exceptional levels of uniqueness (endemism), and biome and ecosystem diversity. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

SA launches Africa’s first Biobanking research project to preserve biodiversity

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SA launches Africa’s first Biobanking research project to preserve biodiversity

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