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[BEIJING] China has set up its first national seed bank as part of the country's efforts to protect biodiversity.

The Southwest China Germplasm Bank of Wild Species was declared operational at an opening ceremony last month (24 November). The seed bank, established at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Kunming Institute of Botany in Yunnan Province, contains more than 30,000 wild seeds from plants on the verge of extinction in China.

The seed bank has the capacity to store many more samples and will offer full access to researchers, said Li Dezhu, the institute's director, at the ceremony.

"Germplasm is vital for a country's security and core interests," Gao Lizhi, director of the institute's Plant Germplasm and Genomics Centre, told SciDev.Net. "Its significance lies not only in scientific research, but also in food security, energy supply and ecology."

Gao is leading a research project on oil-rich plants that can be used to produce bioenergy.

One important outcome of China's research into germplasm resources is hybrid rice, which was developed by scientists including Yuan Longping in central China's Hunan Province. Since the 1970s, hybrid rice varieties have yielded more than 350 billion kilograms of grain.

"A country can be revitalised by a gene," said Xue Dayuan, chief scientist for biodiversity conservation at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science. "The germplasm bank will promote bio-resource research and identify more useful genes like hybrid rice," he said.

Construction of the bank began in 2004. Apart from plant seeds, it bank stores DNA and microorganism samples. It also contains 590 samples of wild seed from 21 foreign countries and the Kenya-based World Agroforestry Centre. The target is to preserve up to 190,000 biological samples in the next 15 years.

"The best way to preserve gene resources is to preserve them in their local natural environment," said Xue. "But the bank is also good, and a less expensive way to protect germplasm from extinction."

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