Five Things You Always Wanted To Know About Biobanks (But Were Too Afraid To Ask)

Biosciences and health sciences are advancing quickly, with new technologies and techniques invented every day. Molecular level investigations are being used in almost every field of biology to explore key questions about living systems and how they function, and the demand for novel foods, drugs and other products is increasing.

That’s why the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recognised the importance of having a wide network of “Biological Resource Centers” for the storage and sharing of biomaterials, essential raw material for the advancement of biotechnology, human health and research and development in the Life Sciences.

In other words: we need more biobanks.

Biobanks can help study, preserve and protect our biodiversity – and also help us learn to deal with diseases and genetic abnormalities in humans, livestock and more.

Case closed, right? No? You still have a few questions?

Don’t worry – we’ve got answers.


1. Um…what exactly is a biobank?

Biobanks carefully collect, study and store a variety of samples from tissue, cells, blood, saliva, plasma or DNA. These samples can come from humans, animals, plants, fungi, microbes – anything that lives, really.

Biobanks may range in size from individual refrigerators to warehouses, and are maintained by institutions such as hospitals, universities, nonprofit organizations, and pharmaceutical companies. In the developed world, biobanks are well established and generally well funded and supported. Yet it’s in the developing world that biobanks could be especially powerful tools.

There are currently a number of biodiversity biobanks within state-funded institutions in South Africa, including national departments, universities and science councils. But there is no national inventory of biodiversity biobanks and their holdings, no coordination of holdings across institutions, no common access policy or standards and procedures for collecting or managing samples and their data, and no training courses in any of these activities.


2. Why do biobanks matter?

Biobanks provide the vital infrastructure for research to support scientific advancement and innovation. The value of biodiversity biobanks for society is broad, and the biobanks could be seen by society as vaults of genetic materials for our biodiversity that can be used to address many of the challenges that will increasingly face humans, including food security, health and well-being, and unemployment.

And the unique biodiversity of South Africa (as one of the 17 megadiverse countries globally) means that the biobank samples offer opportunities for the development of natural products, including those with pharmaceutical potential.

In humans and animals,these samples are essential in biomedical research to understand disease mechanisms and develop new therapies, and also provide the vital infrastructure for research to support scientific advancement and innovation. For plants, seed biobanks can help us understand, study and even resurrect plant species.


3. Resurrect? Is this like Jurassic Park? Are biobanks bringing dinosaurs back?

No. At least, not anytime soon.

For one thing, good luck getting proper tissue samples from something that died tens or hundreds of millions of years ago – let alone DNA. And even if you manage to get some DNA out, that’s still a long way away from a genome. And even if you had a complete genome, what exactly are you going to boot it up in? What came first, the dino-chicken or the egg? And okay, let’s say you manage to inject a dino-genome into a modified lizard egg or something. The thing you get out still won’t be a dinosaur. Not really. And anyway, the environment it evolved in is long gone, so…

Look, we liked Jurassic Park as much as everyone else (more, even). And South Africa actually has  a pretty amazing dinosaur fossil record. But that’s not what biobanks are for, you know?


4. Are biobanks another way for the Illuminati to get control of my DNA?

No. At least, not really. It’s complicated.

See, most biodiversity is held in what might be called the Global South – or the developing world, if you prefer. That’s particularly true of the African continent – the Cradle of Human Evolution. But most biobanks, and most researchers, and most research funding, is in the Global North (you know, the developed countries).

That’s not ideal – especially when you consider the history of colonialism and exploitation that lies behind it.

Recently, African countries have begun to assert their rights to their own biodiversity and genetic diversity more than ever before – even to the point of insisting major scientific deals must include a financial mechanism to compensate them for discoveries using digital forms of their biodiversity.

But that’s why it’s more important than ever to make sure South African biobanks have what they need to function properly – and to make sure biobank researchers understand the importance of obtaining truly informed consent from affected communities.


5. So how can I get involved?

Finally! We thought you’d never ask.

The Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa project is a network that reaches across institutions, uniting them in the quest for biobanking excellence. Stakeholders in the BBSA include SANBI (as the host institution), the DSI (in multiple roles), the managers of the broader institutions or departments under which the biobanks fall, and the staff in the biobanks. So if you’re a biobank researcher or curator, feel free to join the network.

But stakeholders also include permitting authorities, potential funders, contributors to the biobanks, users of samples and data – and anyone across the broader society who has an interest in agriculture, economic development, conservation, health, science education, ethics and more. Biodiversity matters – and we all have a stake in it.


Want to know more about the Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa? Visit  – or drop us an email at

What are biodiversity biobanks?

Biodiversity biobanks are repositories of biologically relevant resources, including reproductive tissues such as seeds, eggs and sperm, other tissues including blood, DNA extracts, microbial cultures (active and dormant), and environmental samples containing biological communities….