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[CAIRO] Egypt has inaugurated a US$1.5 million national repository for genetic material from native species.

The National Gene Bank (NGB), which opened this month, will hold a collection of samples from plants, livestock, and agriculturally important micro-organisms. It will also maintain a database of all specimens held in other national collections.

NGB director Mohamed Khalifa told the Egyptian newspaper Al-ahram that the gene bank will be able to house 200,000 specimens, adding that it has already registered 12,000 samples from Egyptian horticultural and field crops.

According to Mohamed Al-hawari, head of the NGB's scientific office, the gene bank will promote national and international cooperation on research into genetic resources by facilitating the exchange of specimens between scientists in different countries and institutions.

The NGB will identify genetic resources — such as plant genes for tolerance to drought or salinity — that will be made available to public or private research programmes under a scheme that the NGB is drawing up.

Al-hawari told SciDev.Net the NGB will also seek to protect intellectual property rights relating to Egyptian genetic resources.

"Our problem is with the multinational companies that use our genetic resources without acknowledging their Egyptian origin," says Al-hawari. According to him, Egyptian varieties of squash, watermelon and clover are being used by multinational plant breeding companies as the basis for new plant varieties with desirable characters.

Mohammed Khalil Abdel-khalik, head of the genetic engineering committee of Egypt's National Council for Education, Scientific Research and Technology, says the NGB could link up with gene banks elsewhere in the Arab world — such as those in Morocco, Syria and Tunisia — to create a regional network.

"Several plant species — such as wild wheat, barley, forage and food legumes in Syria, as well as date palms in Iraq — are thought to originate in Arab countries," Abdel-khalik told SciDev.Net. "Having a network would help protect and conserve Arab biodiversity and genetic resources."

The NGB will be housed in the Agricultural Research Centre in Cairo and will be funded by the Egyptian government through the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation.

Egypt signed the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in August 2002. Adopted in November 2001 by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, the treaty sets guidelines for the process of collecting, identifying, evaluating, maintaining and documenting plant genetic resources, and defines national obligations for their sustainable use.

Link to Al-ahram news story on the National Gene Bank (in Arabic)