This gene bank in Ethiopia stores seeds of hundreds of wild varieties of crops at sub-zero temperatures for up to 50 years. Every five years the collection is tested for germination ability.

Crops need new protection every 15 years because pests and diseases develop around their existing defences. The only effective way to confer it is to interbreed them with other strains, often wild ones.

Careful maintenance of the earth's genetic resources is vital. Genes provide the raw materials for development of new pharmaceutical, agricultural and industrial products through biotechnology.

Modern biotechnology is based on genetic engineering, by which the DNA in the nucleus of cells can be modified to produce new varieties.

Biotechnology can be defined as the use of living organisms to make or modify products, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific uses. It has been used since people first added yeast to bread or saved the seed from the pick of their crops for next year's sowing.

Advances in molecular biology have transformed biotechnology in recent years. Whereas in the past, crop improvement depended on selective breeding within species, developments in genetic engineering now make it possible to introduce genes from one species to another, producing "transgenic" varieties. Tissue culture, through which plants can be cloned from a single cell, has speeded up the process of making new varieties available.

The first successful experiment in gene manipulation took place in 1986. By 1990, some US$ 11000 million a year was being spent on research and development- two-thirds of it by companies in the private sector. That year, the biotechnology industry in the United States produced some US$ 2 000 million worth of products.

So far research has concentrated on medicine and pharmacy, but the potential for agriculture is immense. By the mid-1990s, some 50 plant species had been biotechnically altered including rice, wheat, potato, soybean and alfalfa. Resistance to pests can he bred in this way, cutting the farmer's dependence on chemicals. Scientists are also using gene manipulation to produce quicker-growing fish and cheaper, more effective vaccines against livestock diseases. Tissue culture has been used to boost the productivity of oil palm and eucalyptus plantations.

Biotechnology has tended to favour the industrialized world, where most of the research is concentrated. Facilities are being set up in most developing countries, but progress is hindered by a lack of money and trained people. Even though these countries provide much of the genetic raw material used, their access to biotechnology is blocked by patents and other measures taken by companies in the developed world to protect their investment in research and development.

Developing countries are concerned that substances synthesized in the laboratory or produced by transgenic crops may undercut such traditional exports as vanilla, pyrethrum, rubber and coconut oil. Biotechnology may also present environmental risks. Cloned varieties could erode genetic diversity. Genes from transgenic crops could spread to wild relatives. As yet no satisfactory international standards exist for biosafety or the patenting of living organisms and genetic materials. There are plans, however, to add a biotechnology protocol to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which was agreed following the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) generally referred to as the Earth Summit - in Rio de Janeiro.


Biotechnology protects biodiversity by assisting conservation of plant and animal genetic resources through:

New crop varieties can be developed more quickly through genetic engineering than through the traditional method of cross-pollination.


Biotechnology in the developing world is hampered by:

However, many countries in the developing world have considerable potential for biotechnology because of their wealth of biodiversity.


The world's major national plant gene banks

Gene banks ranked by size of collection
Click here to see the map

What you'll see next is related to the previous map
1. Institute of Crop Germplasm Resources, Beijing, China

2. N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, St Petersburg, Russian Federation

3. National Seed Storage Laboratory, Colorado, United States

4. National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi, India

5. National Small Grain Collection, Idaho, United States

6. Plant Gene Resources of Canada, Ottawa, Canada

7. Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Research, Gatersleben, Germany

8. Department of Horticulture and Fruit Breeding, University of Agricultural Science, Kristianstad, Sweden

9. National Research Centre of Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, Brasilia, Brazil

10. Institute of Crop Sciences, Braunschweig, Germany

11. Plant Breeding and Acclimatization Institute, Radzikow, Poland

12. Plant Genetic Resources Centre, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

13. Institute of Germplasm, Bari, Italy

14. Institute for Agrobotany, Tapioszele, Hungary

15. Department of Genetic Resources, National Institute of Agrobiological Resources, Tsukuba, Japan

16. National Institute for Forestry and Agricultural Research, San Rafael, Mexico

17. John Innes Centre, Norwich. United Kingdom

18. National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory, Laguna, Philippines

19. Institute of Agroecology and Biotechnology, Kiev, Ukraine

20. Australian Winter Cereals Collection, Tamworth, Australia



Biotechnology has already developed:

Potato plants
resistant to disease: to promote growth and decrease risk of epidemics.

with accelerated growth rates: to increase agricultural production.

that are slower to rot or sprout after cropping: to increase the shelf-life and reduce losses in quantity and quality.

Perennial maize
In Mexico in the late 1970s two wild ancestors of maize were found that have been called the botanical find of the century. They can confer resistance to seven of the domestic crop's major diseases and can turn it into a perennial crop, allowing it to be harvested every year without resowing.


Self-cloning seeds

Some 300 species of plants reproduce asexually. Scientists are working on transferring this "apomixis" to crops. Seed resulting from normal reproduction combines genes from both parents and so grows into a plant with its own unique genetic make-up; but seed from an apomictic plant produces an exact genetic replica of its parent. So new varieties, designed for specific environments, could be produced much more quickly than before, and farmers would be able to gather their own seed. Apomictic maize is expected in 1997, but it could be ten years before the first crops reach the fields. Some seed companies view apomictic crops as a threat to their sales, while some environmentalists fear their possible effect on genetic diversity.


A weapon against cattle plague

Most of the agricultural applications of biotechnology to date have related to animal production and health. Genetic ally-engineered vaccines offer a weapon against such scourges as rinderpest, which killed 2 million cattle in Africa in the early 1980s and caused indirect losses to national economies of some US$ 1 000 million. Such diseases force herders to run resistant, but low-yielding, breeds. If they could be eradicated, it would be possible to crossbreed with high-yielding European breeds and so improve production. An Ethiopian scientist, working in the United States, has now developed a genetically-engineered vaccine against rinderpest, which uses a virus to confer immunity. Unlike the previous vaccine, the new vaccine is unaffected by heat, inexpensive, virtually indestructible and produces antibodies that can easily be distinguished from those produced by the disease - a characteristic useful for monitoring protection against infection. Tailored genetically engineered vaccines also exist for other livestock diseases, including pig scours and chicken bursar disease.


Vine-fresh tomatoes

The Flavr Savr tomato, the first big-engineered food to reach the world's markets, went on sale in the United States in 1994. Biotechnologists have given the tomato an extra gene, which prevents it softening soon after it is ripe. The main benefit, according to them, is in the improved taste. Traditional tomatoes have to be picked while they are still green to prevent them rotting before they reach the customer. The new variety, however, can be left to ripen on the vine and because of this it retains its "homegrown" taste. The Flavr Savr tomato is the first food to benefit from the United States Government's ruling, in 1992, which stated that food derived from gene-altered plants is not required to undergo any special tests.


Nitrogen-fixing rice

Rice needs 1 kilogram of nitrogen to produce 15-20 kilograms of grain, but only takes up one-third to one-half of any chemical fertilizer applied. Leguminous plants such as peas and beans produce their own fertilizer, through the rhizobia bacteria in their root nodules, which fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Biotechnologists are working on transferring this characteristic to rice plants, either by turning them into legumes or encouraging nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil to move into their root cells. This could save poor farmers large sums of money, and transform yields in such regions as Southeast Asia, where an area larger than Sweden and Norway has soils too poor to sustain high-yielding rice varieties.


A tool for conservation

Biotechnology offers scientists new methods for conserving genetic diversity, particularly useful for plants which are sterile or have poor germination rates and whose seeds do not store well. Tissue culture makes it possible to store cells, as opposed to seeds or plants. Cryopreservation - storage at very low temperatures freezes cell development and has been used successfully for cassava, coffee, banana and sugar cane germplasm. These methods require less space than preserving cuttings in vitro or in field collections, which are vulnerable to pests, disease and disasters. Biotechnology also makes it possible to detect and eliminate diseases in gene bank collections and offers more efficient ways of distributing germplasm to users.


Eradicating the screwworm

The New World screwworm fly's scientific name, Cochliomyia hominivorax, describes its ability to "devour humans", but its main menace is to livestock. It lays up to 400 eggs in the open wounds of warm-blooded creatures, including people: the maggots then eat into the living flesh. It used to cause losses in the United States alone of over US$ 100 million a year.

The New World screwworm has now been eradicated from the United States and Mexico using biotechnology. The larvae of the flies are sterilized. When mature, ten sterile males are released for every unsterilized one thought to be in the area: they mate with females which produce no offspring. As a result the population is gradually reduced. The last screwworm case in the United States was reported in 1982, the last in Mexico in 1990.

In 1989 the pest spread, probably carried by imported animals, to Africa when there was an outbreak in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. FAO organized a campaign flying sterile insects from a "fly factory" in Mexico. Within two years the fly had been successfully eradicated using this sterile insect technique (SIT) and a potential disaster had been avoided.