Genetic Diversity Lost with the Damage of Egypt’s Deserts Gene Bank

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By Matt Styslinger

The effort to maintain the world’s biodiversity has taken another hit. In the chaos surrounding the political unrest and public uprising in Egypt, looters have badly damaged the country’s Desert Research Center in El Sheikh Zowaid in North Sinai. The center houses the Egyptian Deserts Gene Bank (EDGB), and—according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust—equipment has been stolen and the cooling system has been damaged.

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Genetic resources have been lost after the Egyptian Deserts Gene Bank was looted and damaged amidst Egypt’s political unrest. (Photo credit: Raïsa Mirza)

The EDGB is focused on desert plants found throughout Egypt and includes a herbarium and specialized laboratories for tissue culture, biotechnology, species documentation, and seed processing and viability testing. The center also has an 18-acre field gene bank that focuses on the use of plant genetic resources in local communities near the center. The field collection includes wild varieties of fruit, forages, medicinal plants, and aromatic plants from the Egyptian deserts. In addition, the facilities included computerized ex-situ seed storage, for the conservation of threatened species not native to the region. The center was selected as a Centre of Excellence for the region by Bioversity International in 2009.

Efforts to catalog and conserve the world’s plant genetic resources have gained recognition and momentum in recent years as biodiversity is increasingly threatened by population growth, environmental degradation, and climate changes. The United Nations (UN) named 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, raising awareness and boosting efforts to address the issue. In October, parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) met in Nagoya, Japan and agreed to the Nagoya protocol, which will go into effect in 2020. The protocol will serve to manage the world’s genetic resources and share the financial benefits equitably with developing countries and indigenous communities as those resources are used, patented, and sold.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its second report on The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in November, warning of the failure to conserve wild plant varieties related to crops grown for food. The loss of biodiversity will likely have major impacts on food security in the world’s poorest communities, and the report outlines what is being done to protect biodiversity of food crops.

“The primary benefit derived from wild relatives by breeders has been the introduction into crops of genes to overcome stresses: examples include resistance to pests and pathogens, drought tolerance, and cold tolerance,” say Colin Khoury and Luigi Guarino of the Global Crop Diversity Trust in an article for Samara, the newsletter of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. Plant breeders crossbreed commercial crops with wild relatives to discover varieties with improved yields, pest and disease resistance, tolerance to climatic stress, and other desirable qualities.

“Cataloguing and conserving [genetic] diversity will allow us to maintain and deploy the widest possible portfolio of genetic resources in order to increase the resilience of our food supply,” says Irene Hoffmann at FAO. “As we come closer to the world’s limits in arable land and other resources for agriculture,” say Khoury and Guarino, “crop improvement is projected to be the source of an ever-greater share of future production gains.”

The chaos in Egypt is likely to intensify in the coming days as protesters are calling for a massive demonstration and continued general strike on Tuesday. The protestors aim to force President Hosni Mubarak—who has been president in Egypt since 1981—out of office.

The extent of the damage at the EDGB is not yet known. The collection at EDGB includes genetic resources not found anywhere else in the world. “This is yet another sobering reminder of how fragile the diversity in gene banks actually is,” says the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s website.

For more on biodiversity see: Anticipating the Genebank Pop, FAO Calls for More Protection of Livestock Genetic Diversity, Conserving Our Genetic Resources for a More Food Secure Future, Drought, Pest Disease and Taste: A Sweet Potato for Every Occasion, Listening to Farmers, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, Prospects for a Viable Food Future, Valuing What They Already Have, and Creating a Well-Rounded Food Revolution.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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