Preserving Our Past, Protecting Our Future: Why Biodiversity Biobanks Matter

South Africa is one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. Not only is the country blessed with exceptional species richness, with thousands of plants, animals and microbes, but also exceptional levels of uniqueness (endemism), and biome and ecosystem diversity. Unfortunately, much of that biodiversity is under threat – which is one of the reasons biodiversity biobanks have become so important in the area.

Biobanks collect and store a variety of living samples, including tissue, cells, blood, saliva, plasma or DNA, for use in a variety of research efforts. Biodiversity biobanks, specifically, are those that hold a wide range of materials from or representing plants, animals and microbes (fungi, bacteria and viruses), and also include other samples such as hair, horn, seeds, and cultures of plant tissues and of microbes. 

“Biodiversity biobanks have a huge role to play in studying our world,” says Professor Michelle Hamer, Project Lead at the Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa (BBSA). “They provide vital infrastructure for research to support scientific advancement and innovation. With properly-stored biological samples, and proper recording of all the data associated with those samples, researchers from all over the world can share information about organisms from a wide variety of environments.”  

South Africa has a long tradition of biobanking, with a variety of biobanks storing over half a million samples and specimens going back for decades. But  there’s one big problem: all these biobanks have traditionally operated largely in isolation. 

“Some researchers don’t trust the system,” Prof Hamer notes. “They fear that if they deposit samples in a biobank they will not be able to access these if they need them later, or they are concerned about the quality of samples that may be supplied by biobanks. There are currently no common policies, procedures and standards related to biodiversity biobanks in South Africa, which means that the quality of materials cannot always be assured.” 

The only way to address these challenges is through working as a cohesive network with a common purpose and shared objectives. 

That’s where the BBSA comes into play.


What is the Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa all about?

The Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa (BBSA) is a research infrastructure project funded by the Department of Science & Innovation (DSI)  and co-ordinated and hosted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the BBSA aims to help preserve, maintain and utilise South Africa’s vast biodiversity biobanking resources – and provide critical research infrastructure for answering important questions about the world we live in. 

But the BBSA is not a single facility – it’s a network of institutions that hold biodiversity biobanks, and the individuals who work to make those biobanks useful, united in the quest for biobanking excellence.

Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa group photo

The BBSA is not a single facility – it’s a network of institutions that hold biodiversity biobanks, and the individuals who work to make those biobanks useful, united in the quest for biobanking excellence.

The Biodiversity Biobanks of South Africa is made up of biodiversity biobank researchers who can be found all over South Africa – on university campuses, in dedicated research facilities and even at national parks, handling samples from bacteria, plants, fungi and rhinos (and more).

BBSA biobanks store, study and share hundreds of thousands of samples of biological material from plants, animals, bacteria and fungi, from field to farm to ocean – and beyond

It’s simple, really. Basically, the BBSA solves four problems, It:

  • ensures samples aren’t stored in isolation and are accessible
  • ensures samples are stored, and not thrown away
  • addresses the issue of trust by promoting credible practices in biobanking
  • creates a collaborative platform for growing the biobanks so that they hold materials that represent the country’s biodiversity.

That’s a gamechanger for South African biodiversity biobanks. But it’s not just the biobanking community that benefits from improved collaboration…


Better biobanking for a better life?

Biobanks are critical resources that are there to serve society in many different ways, from food security to conservation to understanding our world. But biobanks need to be used – in an organised fashion that benefits our country, and the broader research community.

BBSA Biobank Researchers

The vision of the BBSA is about securing and exploring South Africa’s biodiversity – and making the most of it.

So how can biobanks help South Africa face our challenges? Let’s take a look.

  1. Better Biodiversity = Big Bucks: 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. And whether by land (SANParks Veterinary Wildlife Services Biobank) or sea (NRF-SAIAB aquatic biobank), whether they house plants (SANBI Indigenous Plant DNA Biobank) or fungi (ARC National Collection of Fungi), the BBSA biobanks help us preserve, conserve and understand this biodiversity – and the many employment opportunities and technologies that come with them.
  2. Food Security, Health & Wellbeing: Okay, so you can’t eat biobank samples (really – don’t even try). But the work conducted by biobank researchers can – and does – help promote food security. Biobanks under the custodianship of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) include plant, animal and microbial-based assets on 11 campuses in all 9 of South Africa’s provinces. Along with the Grootfontein Biobank for Sheep & Goats and the DALRRD Small Grain Institute, these biobanks provide materials for use in improved crops, livestock and soil fertility, conservation and production of indigenous crops and other food sources, as well as conservation of pollinators. They also provide materials for research and development related to conservation and sustainable use of plants and animals used in traditional medicines, and the development of new medicines.
  3. Combating Climate Change: Sure, biobanks can’t directly solve climate change – they can’t magically take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or stop extreme climate events; and actually, running biobanks uses a fair amount of energy (keeping samples safe and monitored at ultra-low temperatures isn’t easy). But biobanks can help us understand the effects of climate change on species through time, and help us develop crops and domesticated animals that are resistant to the effects of climate change. And microbial biobanks like those at the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology (IMBM) can actually help produce biotech breakthroughs that can provide alternative energy sources like biofuels or can help us understand how microbes can survive (and alter) hotter and drier environments.

So remember, it’s not just about cutting-edge science, and interesting research.

As Prof Hamer explains: “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 wellbeing, and unemployment.  Biobanks matter because biodiversity matters – and we all have a stake in it.” 

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….