cip-genebankA method of using bar-codes to track the handling of material in genebanks that was developed by the International Potato center (CIP) is so useful that the kit of techniques and equipment is being adopted by other CGIAR centers to improve their daily genebank operations. Managing genebanks involves repeatedly identifying the samples, or accessions, to track them and to update the information describing them after various processes like pathogen testing, cleaning, multiplication, characterization, evaluation, seed storage and inventory, and distribution. This process is both time-consuming and prone to human error if it is done using conventional hand registration with paper records.

A group of CIP staff sought to use bar-codes as a pivotal element in improving the processes and information management in the Center’s genebank. But introducing them required several changes in the traditional systems that were used in the genebank. “CIP’s genebank manages accessions with an array of processes,” said David Tay, the Leader of CIP’s Division of Conservation and Characterization of Genetic Resources. “They include cleaning, multiplication, evaluation and conservation of samples in the field, as tubers and plants, and in seeds, cryogenic, in vitro and DNA storage. Data are recorded at each stage. The transition from hand registration to complete electronic management meant that the whole procedure in the genebank had to be analyzed to identify where bar-coding could best be applied with the highest potential cost/benefit. This assessment resulted in staff closely documenting the processes they were using and consolidating a number of databases. It also became clear that using bar-codes required several complementary hardware components, such a readers and label printers, and labels that would resist -196°C temperatures.
“Once we had done all the work, we put everything into a kit,” said Reinhard Simon, CIP’s Head of Research Informatics, “Including procedures, hardware and software specifications, using cutting edge technologies that had never been brought together before.” The kit consists of six hardware components; mobile or handhelds computers, thermal printers, bar-code labels for different environments, hand barcode reader, barcode specifications and wireless access points. It also includes a technical specification document and web site, complete with links to application videos and complementary information. The kit is defined by a series of hardware specifications that give personnel in each genebank flexibility in selecting whatever equipment and consumables are available locally and engaging technical support. The kit also describes the procedures to standardize germplasm labeling and exchange information together with the best ways to use identification technologies like bar-coding.
Optional components include open source software for data capture, inventory management, information integration and advice on designing and documenting workflows. To make the transfer of technology easier, the requirement to reassess genebank procedures is not an integral part of the barcode kit itself. Users are free to continue using their existing databases and software and add the bar-code kit or adapt both in case no workflows and databases are documented. “To encourage adoption we have established an on-line helpdesk,” said Simon.

CIP shared information on its barcode kit in a training workshop in 2008 that was using the kits. “The knowledge we obtained helped us with very specific topics – for barcode printing and approaches used in developing a bar-coding system,” said Matija Obreza, Software Development Manager at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture. “IITA will continue developing its bar-coding solution for its inventory system and supporting architecture, focusing on wireless and hand-held computing aspects of the genebank inventory.”

The processes and software that were developed for the kit contributed considerably to the relatively quick International Standards Organization (ISO) accreditation of CIP’s genebank. So other genebanks interested in ISO certification or accreditation might be interested in adopting CIP’s bar-coding kit and supporting workflows, software and databases. The concept of a kit also foresees the eventual replacement of bar-code by other identification technologies like the recently established radio frequency identification that is rapidly becoming popular in the industry. However, current cost-benefit analysis shows the unit costs are still in favor of bar-coding under genebank conditions. The emergence of a competing new technology will most probably result in further declining costs for bar-code-related tools. “From this viewpoint, integrating the bar-code kit will be a worthwhile investment for the next technology life cycle of 3-5 years as well as a facilitator to implement any new tracking or high throughput identification technology,” said Simon.

If you want to learn more about CGIAR’s genebanks visit our Genebank site