[CAIRO] Priceless genetic material from desert environments may have been irretrievably lost during the recent Egyptian protests, as looters targeted the Desert Research Centre (DRC) in Cairo and the Egyptian Deserts Gene Bank (EDGB) in North Sinai, causing major damage.
The security vacuum caused by a police walkout during the anti-government protests last month left government facilities in Cairo unguarded. The DRC was among the facilities targeted by mobs last month, destroying laboratories, ripping out bathrooms and even doors, and stealing computers.
The same day, Bedouin groups in the Sinai region, angered by the Mubarak government's policies towards them, went on the rampage. One group attacked the gene bank in North Sinai, destroying the laboratories and wrecking the cooling system, which could damage the valuable seed collection.
The facility's seeds and 18-acre field gene bank are said to be secure, but equipment was stolen and destroyed — including computers storing the EDGB gene database, according to DRC chairman Ibrahim M. Nasr.
Nasr estimated the losses at the facilities in Cairo and North Sinai at around US$1.3 million. That figure does not include the desert plant gene bank, some of which has been irretrievably lost.
"The EDGB database contains 750 wild desert plant species, including genetic resources not found anywhere else in the world. The collection is not even duplicated in the National Gene Bank in Giza, which has not suffered similar looting," said Ismail Abdel Galil, former DRC chairman and founder of the EDGB.
"Fortunately some of the [genetic] material is duplicated at the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew in the United Kingdom and, through the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership which EDGB is part of, we are able to get them back."
Although the digital database is lost, there is a hardcopy backup of the 'passport data', considered the core of a genes database, including the variety name, scientific name, origin, and registration date of each entry. But it could take years to repair the database to retrieve the original detailed entries.
"I am very sad. Thirteen years of work has gone, and we have to start again from zero," said Hafez Ahmed Hafez, one of the researchers working at the DRC.
Hafez said PhD students had lost research data stored on the computers and would have to repeat most of their experiments.
Commenting on the importance of the EDGB, Magda Shalaby, head of the botany department at the National Research Centre, said: "It is regarded as the main reference for all the other research centres in Egypt and the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region".
See below for two videos of damage to the labs, filmed by El-Sayed Mohamed El-Azazi, the executive director of the Egyptian Deserts Gene Bank in North Sinai: