20 March 2011
Egypt’s gene bank raided
One news item among the thousands carried daily on the Internet had us at Watani especially worried.
Amidst the chaos and unrest which encompassed Egypt throughout the last two months, looters badly damaged Egypt’s Desert Research Centre at Sheikh Zuwaid in North Sinai. Equipment and computers were stolen from the centre which houses the Egyptian Deserts Gene Bank (EDGB); the cooling system was damaged; and the tissue culture and molecular labs were destroyed; as well as part of the herbarium. Watani had to get to the bottom of the matter.
Yasser Hefni, a researcher with EDGB told Watani that on 28 January both EDGB’s Cairo and North Sinai stations were simultaneously plundered.
Fortunately, the seed collection was not damaged, Executive Director of EDGB at the North Sinai Station al-Sayed Mohamed al-Azzazi said, suggesting that it was probably because the looters were afraid to go into the cold room. “Every seed is still as it is,” he said.
Out of 2,200 wild desert species known to humanity, the collection at EDGB includes more than 750 species, possibly found nowhere else in the world. Some of the material is duplicated at the Millennium Seed Bank in the United Kingdom (MSBUK) at Kew Garden, as per a treaty signed with EDGB in 2000, according to which Egypt maintains copyright on these varieties.
By virtue of the treaty, MSBUK for ten years provided training for Sheikh Zuwaid researchers on the conservation of genetic resources and their registration on a database. MSBUK also provided EDGB with state-of-the-art conservation equipment.
“Centre of Excellence”
“EDGB is the only gene bank in Egypt specialised in conserving plant genetic resources,” Dr Azzazi explained, stressing the importance of the 18-acres Desert Research Centre station 12km off Egypt’s northeastern border.
“The station, houses several departments and laboratories, the most notable of which is the Gene Bank,” he said. “It was founded in 1997, and focuses on the use of plant genetic resources in local communities.
“The field collection includes wild varieties of fruit, forages, medicinal plants, and aromatic plants from the Egyptian deserts. Among others, it includes the genetic resources of 40 varieties of olive, 24 of fig, and eight types of pistachio. Other varieties come from the Arab Centre for the Studies of Arid and Semi-Arid (ACSAD) for evaluation and adaptation to Egyptian conditions, especially conditions in northern Sinai, following which they are re-propagated and distributed to farmers in the region.
“The facility also includes computerised ex-situ seed storage, for the conservation of threatened species not native to the region.”
The Desert Research Centre was selected as a Centre of Excellence for the region by Bioversity International in 2009.”
While the National Gene Bank in Giza is concerned with the genetic resources of farm plants and animals, the North Sinai Gene Bank is a repository for Egyptian desert plants in or outside their natural habitat. It includes a herbarium and specialised laboratories for tissue culture, biotechnology, species documentation, and seed processing and viability testing.
Although the digital database was apparently lost after the computers were damaged, Dr Azzazi said, there exists a hardcopy backup of the passport data. Passport data, he explained, is considered the core of a gene database, and includes the variety name, scientific name, origin, and registration date of each entry. Accession numbers are assigned to each entry, to which additional data—like stock quantity or characteristics of the particular genetic resource—is added.
The attack on EDGB is by all means a blow to biodiversity, especially considering the rare, threatened species to which the EDGB is home. Rare species are dealt with carefully at the centre, Dr Azzazi explained. There are special divisions inside the bank where different kinds of seeds are kept and nurtured regarding the temperature and humidity rates best suited for their conservation, according to international studies. Some of the chambers are short term conservation chambers and allow the seeds to be conserved between 10 and 15 years. In long term chambers, species are kept between 50 and 100 years.
Watani asked Dr Azzazi about the attack against the Desert Research Centre, and the estimated losses. “According to eyewitnesses,” he replied, “the attack took place late on 28 January, when some 30 armed Bedouin converged on the centre in vehicles carrying no licence plates. They threatened the few security guards and entered the station. Inside, they destroyed most of the laboratories of the station and stole the equipment and computers on which was stored the gene bank. The losses are estimated at EGP30 million.
“The Cairo State-owned daily Al-Ahram claimed there were Israeli hands behind the ruin, is this true?” Watani asked. “This is not true,” Dr Azzazi stressed. “According to security members and eyewitnesses, the attackers were the Bedouin. The purpose was not robbery; they had gone on a rampage to destroy anything that was State-owned. They apparently wished to get back at the government for its harsh treatment of the Bedouin who were responsible for the Taba, Sharm al-Sheikh, and Dahab bombings in Sinai in 2004, 2005, and 2006 respectively, during which scores of tourists lost their lives.
“Amazingly,” Dr Azzazi said, “the Bedouin themselves stand to lose. The station used to sell them premium olive saplings at bargain prices. Some of them used to ask the station to preserve seeds for them in the Gene Bank, which the bank did free of charge.”
The ruin did not stop at that, however. On Thursday 10 March a 600sq.m-greenhouse which enclosed a rare collection of decorative plants was torched. It did not help at all that the current state of chaos in the country made no police official available.