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Brazil has opened a DNA bank to preserve genetic material of its endangered plant life. Its goal is to help protect rare plants threatened by extinction in a country that has the world's greatest variety of plant species.

The DNA bank, which is based at the Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden) in Rio de Janeiro, employs five researchers. They plan to collect at least 1,000 plant species each year to 'deposit' in the bank. Samples of specimens will be dried out and have DNA samples extracted, after which they will be frozen and stored.

Plants in several areas of Brazil are currently under threat. Perhaps the most dramatic decline in plant diversity has occurred along Brazil's coast, especially in the southeast, where a large area of botanically-distinct forest — termed 'Atlantic forest' — once existed. After decades of mining and urban growth, only one per cent of the original forest remains.

But the Amazon forest, in northern Brazil, which holds the greatest number of plant species in the country, is also threatened by deforestation.

A report published last year by Brazil's National Institute of Space Research (INPA) says that 25,000 sq km of forest was cleared in 2002. It is the second highest annual rate of deforestation officially registered in the area — after the 29,059 sq km loss in 1995 — and botanists are worried that the process is putting severe pressure on other threatened plant species

The DNA bank will complement two laboratories at Jardim Botânico, where scientists are already carrying out research into plant conservation and the development of plant-based medicines and treatments.

Brazil's minister of environment, Marina Silva, admits that, despite the scientific value of the new plant DNA bank, the project is still facing financial restrictions as a result of the government's recent cuts in public spending.

But she is optimistic that the project will still be successful. "We will learn how to make one penny do the work of two," she says.

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