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Zambia's first molecular biology laboratory is fully up and running, following three years of equipment delays and staff shortages.

TheNational Biotechnology Laboratory, run by the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research (NISIR), was originally intended to be operational in December 2006 (see Zambia builds high-tech lab to detect GM food).

But it only began functioning fully this year — despite officially opening on 27 April 2007, says NISIR research and development manager Ray Handema.

The laboratory — a refurbishment of an existing facility — is in Chilanga, about 20 kilometres south of the capital of Lusaka, and is being run by entomologist Mwandala Felix with fewer than ten technicians.

The laboratory is not presently accredited by the Zambia Bureau of Standards, due to a shortage of staff.

"Our goal is to have the laboratory accredited as a national regional referrallaboratory that provides biotechnology research and training in collaboration with the departments of agriculture, natural sciences, veterinary and human sciences at the University of Zambia and the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology (GenØk)," NISIR executive director Mwananyanda Lewanika told SciDev.Net.

The US$400,000 laboratory was partly funded by the Norwegian government, with the Zambian government covering running costs and salaries, and equipment and training supplied by the biosecurity centre GenØk in Tromsø, Norway.

The lab is capable of detecting contaminants in food products and has the capacity to use both molecular techniques and chemical analysis, Handema says.

It is also intended to help to enforce the biosafety legislation passed last year (see Zambia takes steps towards biosafety law). The lab's priority will be to search for genetically modified (GM) seeds and flour — banned in Zambia since 2006 — although it did not participate in the testing of GM maize allegedly imported to the country two years ago (see Zambian import agencies deny GM 'violation' claims).

Lewanika says the lab has "conducted tests on various local seeds" including sorghum, maize and millet, and so far has found no evidence of genetically modified organisms.

But some critics argue that it is a waste to concentrate on GM crops detection.

"What will they concentrate on when GM crops are legalised in Zambia?" says former Zambian Ed Rybicki, a researcher at the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

"They would better serve Zambia, and the region in general, by looking at genuine threats, studying local biodiversity and even making transgenic crops themselves."

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