Biobank preserves genetic riches of the Galapagos

By Fernando Gimeno

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Jul 9 (EFE).- The genetic blueprints for the dazzling biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands will be preserved for the future thanks to the biobank created by researchers at the Galapagos Science Center (GSC).

Biological and genetic materials are stored at temperatures of minus 80 C (minus 112 F) inside the GSC complex in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island.

“Any sample that we take is a very valuable resource,” marine biologist Diana Pazmiño tells EFE.

The GSC was established in 2011 by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ).

“What others see as just liquid in a little tube, for us is gold, because in the long term this can help us answer a great many questions,” Pazmiño says.

Samples are collected in the course of the GSC’s 60 research projects in the Galapagos. Located in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 km (620 mi) off mainland Ecuador, the islands are home to more than 7,000 species, many of them found nowhere else on the planet.

The archipelago – which consists of 13 major islands, six smaller islands and scores of islets and rocks – was made famous by 19th-century British naturalist Charles Darwin, whose observations of life on the islands inspired him to develop his theory about evolution, natural selection and the origin of species.

The most-prized samples come from endangered species and from creatures who live in hard-to-reach habitats, such as the Galapagos flightless cormorant, the Galapagos penguin, and the hammerhead shark.

One of the initiatives generating samples for the biobank is the Galapagos Barcode project, an effort “to catalog the biodiversity” of the islands.

“There are so many things still to discover,” Pazmiño says, adding that the Barcode project has already identified a previously unknown fungus found through the analysis of soil samples.

The biobank is also involved in a study of microbial life scientists hope will shed light on aspect of evolution that were inaccessible to observation in Darwin’s time.

“It’s a biodiversity that is not so evident because we always tend to think first of birds, fish, or reptiles … but microbial diversity is just as important,” Pazmiño says, notably as an “indicator of how healthy an ecosystem is.”

The GSC biobank is meant to be one of seven such facilities constituting a “Noah’s Ark of the biodiversity of Ecuador,” which encompasses a wide range of environments in a relatively small geographical area – from Andean peaks to Amazonian rainforest.



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