Tunisia's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, inaugurated a national gene bank this month (11 November) to promote the development of sustainable agriculture in the country.
Located in Tunis, the National Gene Bank aims to preserve biological diversity and protect genetic resources, boost scientific research in agricultural biotechnology and promote sustainable genetic diversity for research into plant breeding and crop improvement.
It will hold 200,000 samples of genetic resources, such as seeds, semen, tissue and pollen. It will collect, identify, characterise, manage and conserve plant, animal and microorganism genetic resources, particularly for endangered species.
According to Mnaouer Djemali, general director of the National Gene Bank, the bank is designed to improve coordination among operators –– researchers, farmers and nongovernmental organisations –– in genetic resources.
The bank will cooperate with international gene banks and research centres and contribute to the biotechnological development of agriculture in Africa and Arab countries, Djemali told SciDev.Net.
A database of the country's plant genetic resources will be established and information will be disseminated to researchers through workshops and training programmes.
The bank will also raise public awareness of the importance of conserving genetic diversity through field-research activities with farmers.
Ahmed Rebai, researcher at the Tunisian Centre of Biotechnology of Sfax, told SciDev.Net that many Tunisian genetic 'treasures' are stored in international collections in Europe and the United States. ″Now we can welcome these dispersed genetic resources back home,″ he said.
Amr Farouk Abdelkhalik, regional coordinator of the Agricultural Biotechnology Network in Africa, says "The main target of such an important gene bank should be to characterise those genetic resources as a gene pool for different traits, such as [resistance to] salinity and drought. There is still a long way to [go before we can] utilise the important and natural genes expressed in those resources."
Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a plant biotechnologist at Cairo's National Research Centre, told SciDev.Net that expanding the National Gene Bank's activity to encompass the whole North African region would avoid duplication of efforts and save on resources, as well as enlarging the target market for commercial production of improved plant material.