Deposits at Microbe Bank popular with scientists, academics in biotech age
Story by ANCHALEE KONGRUT
The bank's tellers must wear specially insulated gloves when putting a deposit in these boxes. Such extreme cold would cause major trauma to unprotected human skin.
''Our deposit currency is not money, but living micro-organisms like bacteria and fungus. Our transactions are invisible to the naked eye,'' said Somsak Sivichai, a researcher at the Microbe Bank.
Micro-organisms, or microbes, are small living organisms such as bacteria, protozoans, fungi and viruses. Most people generally think of them as germs.
Microbes are not a new discovery and people have been using them for centuries.
Famous microbes known as yeast have long been used for producing wine, soy sauce and bread. In the farm industry, biotech companies extract genes from these living organisms to develop new plants with desirable characteristics.
Pharmaceutical companies use microbes to produce antibiotics such as penicillin, and various medicines such as insulin to treat diabetes, to name a few.
As bank tellers count bank notes by hand or using a counting machine, so Microbe Bank tellers count germs by looking into microscopes. Then they put them into pinky-size test tubes and store them in safe deposit cabinets.
The Microbe Bank is at the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Biotec), the state biotechnology research arm, in Pathum Thani province.
The bank has been providing laboratory services and storage for academic researchers and private companies since 1997.
It is one of 525 micro-organism banks in the world and the largest in Southeast Asia.
Over 20,000 microbe strains are deposited at the bank including pricey fungi strains such as Cordyceps sinesis, which is a food supplement known as Tang Chao. Costing around 500,000 baht per kilogramme, Tang Chao is widely used as an ingredient in chicken soup sold in markets. China's Olympic athletes eat Tang Chao soup to boost their fitness, according to Mr Somsak.
The bank and its parent agency Biotec are centrepieces of the state's biotechnology development policy, which aimed at strengthening the farm, food processing and traditional medicine industries.
Thailand is blessed with a diverse ecology and 7-10% of living organisms and rare species in the world are found here.
Wanchern Potacharoen, manager and co-founder of the Microbe Bank, encourages the private sector to use the bank's service.
The Ministry of Science and Technology, which oversees the agency, has plans to reform the bank into a state enterprise by 2012, she said.
Storage banks for micro-organisms are commonly found in countries with advanced biotechnology such as Japan and the United States. There is also a commercially-run microbe bank in the US.
Micro-organisms need special handling.
Invisible to the unaided eye, they will naturally die in months. To keep them alive and cultivate them, a storage facility like Biotec's Microbe Bank spends vast sums of money on fuel and electricity to control temperatures of the germ cabinets. The liquid nitrogen used to keep the storage boxes cold costs the bank 200,000 baht per month.
Giant agri-business firms, such as Betagro and Mitr Phol, recently set up research facilities near the bank so they could use the cold storage facilities.
It charges only 10,000 baht for a five-year deposit. Academic and state researchers get a special discount rate, sometimes free, thanks to state subsidies.
However, the number of private clients depositing their precious germs at the bank is relatively low, comprising only 25% of the total 4,000 deposits this fiscal year.
Ms Wanchern said microbes were now sought after by Western scientists and biotechnology companies.
''Industries are affected by the chemical contamination of food. And the medical field has found that diseases develop resistance.
''So scientists are now looking at using biological reactive substances found in microbes as replacements for man-made chemicals,'' she said."