Nation to Get its First DNA Bank

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The Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute, with the major goal of storing the genetic information of biological life found in Ethiopia, is set to establish a DNA bank at the cost of around 25 million dollars. 

The DNA bank that will be the first of its kind will secure and store analyzed genetic information of microbes, plants, and animals, including human beings. 

To be completed in the next five years, the stored information of the bank will be put to use in developing resilient desert crops, preventing diseases, and improving existing medicines to fit the genetic makeup of Ethiopians. 

The bank that will be opened at the premise of the Institute will get the analyzed information from two other centers, a genomics and a bioinformatics centers, that are also in the process of being built by the Institute. 

The Genomics Center will sequence, assemble, and analyze the structure and function of an organism’s complete set of DNA, genome.

On the other hand, the Bioinformatics Center will combine biology, computer science, information engineering, mathematics, and statistics to analyze and interpret biological data.

Both centers will send the findings of their works to the bank, where other institutions, universities, researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and interested parties can get access to them. 

Deoxyribonucleic acid, more commonly known as DNA, is a molecule that contains genetic instructions for the development, functioning, growth, and reproduction of all known organisms. 

DNA contains valuable information that can be put into practical use, such as understanding the genetic basis behind human disease. 

“Ethiopia is home to very diverse biological life, but the country has failed to fully benefit and capitalize from its biological resources because of the lack of such institutions,” said Kassahun Tesfaye (Ph.D.), director-general at the Institute.

Ethiopia is endowed with a wide range of biological life. It has an astonishing range of wildlife, boasting over 22,000 species of butterflies and moths, over 800 bird species, and about 320 species of mammals. 

The country also has diverse floral with more than 6500 species of vascular plants, of which 625 are endemic. 

Though the nation had a gene bank since 1976, The Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, it only stored the seeds of different plant species without doing DNA analysis.  

Kassahun argues that DNA sequencing and analysis will help the country preserve its genetic resources and possibly lead to putting them into further use. 

“Many medicines used in Ethiopia are imported from other countries and are made in light of the Western world’s genetic makeup said Kassahun “works and information that will be made available via the bank will encourage pharmaceutical companies to develop medicines specifically designed for the Ethiopian people”. 

“Such efforts combined with works of the centers to find a cure for diseases can also lead to the monetization of the generated information,” he added. 

The other significant benefit of the center will be to fight off bio-piracy according to the general director who clearly remembers what happened with teff a few years ago. 

The patent for teff has been held by a Dutch agronomist, Jans Roosjen, since 2007, preventing Ethiopia from using its own genetic resources. 

Though Roosjen lost a court battle in the Hague that led him to lose the grain’s rights in the Netherlands, he is still in possession of a European teff patent currently valid in Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, and the UK.

Ethiopia has hired an international law firm to appeal the patent, and court battles are currently undergoing.

Kassahun believes such types of problems can be avoided once the bank gets up and running. He argues that since plants’ genetic information will be stored along with other details, it will make it impossible for third parties to enter the scene and claim ownership and patent rights over Ethiopia’s species.

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Adding the cost of building the genomics and bioinformatics centers, the projects’ total cost reaches close to 100 million dollars. 

Regarding the fund allocation, Kassahun stated that the Institute is not looking for a lump sum source and is instead growing into its full capacity. 

“Each year, we are setting goals and taking small steps towards making the centers a reality,” he added.

The Institute has already got its hands on one DNA sequencing equipment, Iseq 100, and preliminary works have already begun. 

Under the Ministry of Innovation & Technology, the Institute is one of the institutions that are given the responsibility of leading the digital economy in the new Digital strategy of Ethiopia. 

Dubbed Digital Strategy for Inclusive Prosperity 2025, the strategy is designed to lead the economy toward tech-led growth; the Council of Ministers approved the document in mid-June 2020.

Drafted in line with the Homegrown Economic Reform Agenda and the National 10-year Plan, it deliberates on the current bottlenecks limiting digitize operations.

Accordingly, the Institute, which was legally established five years ago, is embarking on its new responsibility and the DNA bank is part of this need to embrace global trends.

“The world is leaning towards Bio-economy, and the bank will help Ethiopia unleash its potential and catch up with the rest of the world,” said Kassahun. 

Its also to be recalled that the Ethiopian government in February 2020 approved the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) insect-resistant cotton (Bt-cotton) and confined trial of GM enset and maize in Ethiopia. 

In the new plan, the Institute is also mandated with capacity building, human resources development, and creating an enabling environment for research in medical, agricultural, industrial, and environmental biotechnology. 

Last year the Institute, together with the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences (EAS), signed a tripartite letter of intent with Beijing Genomics Institute Group (BGI), a genome sequencing company. 

The agreement laid the first steps for the world’s biggest genomics firm to open its Africa base in Ethiopia. 

The Institute is also set to inaugurate the first microalgae research lab in less than two weeks.

Built at the cost of 8 million birr, the lab will produce seeds of microalgae for large-scale mass culture and encourage the use of algae for food supplements to fight against stunted growth in children. 

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