The small city of Chillán, about 249 miles (400 km) south of Santiago, is set to become home to South America’s first microbial bank, after the Chilean Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA: Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarios) announced a major expansion of its Biological Control Center.
The new facilities will include equipment to conserve spores, as well as cooling and cryogenic systems, and the institute will begin engaging in a program of collecting new microorganisms, all of which will enable exciting new research opportunities.
Additionally, the microbial bank will act as a repository of some of the most diverse life forms on earth, acting as a storehouse against future doomsday events.
In a conference to announce the new plan, INIA National Director Pedro Bustos Valdivia said that just as gene banks conserve flora so as to regenerate biodiversity in the case of an environmental catastrophe, the microbial bank can perform the same function for microorganisms, including fungi and nematodes.
Nematodes, commonly known as roundworms, are considered one of the most diverse of all animals, and have successfully adapted to nearly every ecosystem: from marine to freshwater, from the polar regions to the driest of deserts, and even the earth’s lithosphere.
In fact, nematodes are so numerous that they are estimated at 80 percent of all individual animals on Earth, and their sheer diversity indicate a hugely important, if little understood, role in nearly all of the Earth’s ecosystems.
Given their diversity, microbial banks have huge significance for conservation, with the threats posed by developmental pressure to biodiversity around the world.
Studying microorganisms could also reap commercial rewards for Chile, as species can have both beneficial or detrimental effects on crops – acting as both pests and pest controls.
In the INIA conference, Bustos said that he was proud that the Chilean institute would play a role as an “international curator” in the area of microorganisms, and of acquiring the technology that the bank will require, which will be completely unique in South America.
The announcement comes in the same month as Chile’s Commission for Scientific and Technological Research signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. National Science Foundation to further scientific and educational cooperation between the two nations.