Expo 40 years BCCM: Why do we need culture collections?

Welcome to the wonderful world of micro-organisms, or rather micro-heroes!

We take you to a special place where these little creatures are kept... our culture collections!


The heroes we refer to are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Scientists have been cultivating them since about 150 years. Nowadays, microorganisms are applied in numerous industrial, agricultural, environmental and biotechnological processes, and our appreciation of their ecological roles is on the rise.

Where are the microorganisms kept that have been studied and used for centuries due to their useful properties? In so-called "culture collections".

The oldest collections were started in the late 19th century. In Belgium, some establisched culture collections united to a network and the "Belgian Coordinated Collections of Microorganisms", or BCCM for short, saw the light of day in 1983! Since then, the BCCM collections have grown to be among the biggest in the world, both in terms of the number of their biological materials and in terms of their expertise and services offered!

Culture collections have three main objectives:

  • Isolating and describing new microbial strains and species, thereby helping scientists to understand and explore the biodiversity of microorganisms.
  • Preserving the microbial strains and their genetic materials, thereby contributing to the conservation of micro-biodiversity.
  • Providing these microbiological resources to scientists who wish to study them or to use them in an application.


BCCM is a consortium of 7 complementary culture collections, coordinated by a central team at the Federal Science Policy Office. 
The Federal Science Policy funds the BCCM consortium as a support action for research and development in life sciences and biotechnology. Indeed, these sectors depend on the availability of well-controlled, identified and characterised biological material. The mission of BCCM is therefore to provide the biological material of its collections, the related information, as well as its expertise and know-how to partners and customers from the scientific and industrial world.


Why should researchers deposit their biological material in a public culture collection or Biological Resource Centre (BRC)?


Only a small proportion (<1%) of microbiological material described in scientific publications is found in public culture collections/BRCs. The unavailability of this material is pernicious for the reproducibility of research results.  
Building on existing research requires the availability not only of the data but also of the material to which it relates. Indeed, research has shown that depositing a microbial strain in a public culture collection has a multiplier effect on further research related to this strain.
Especially for publicly funded research, and in the context of accounting for the funds granted, it is important that not only the results, but also the underlying data and the material on which they are based, are publicly available ('open access').

Culture collections/BRCs are experts in the preservation of microbial and genetic resources. In order to safeguard this biological material, the most appropriate preservation method is applied and a back-up stock is stored at another location, using another preservation method if possible. Quality controls ensure the authenticity of the material. 

Culture collections/BRCs also apply legal regulations on packaging and shipping of biological material. They also keep careful records of who received which material (traceability). In most cases, a Material Transfer Agreement, such as the BCCM MTA, prohibits further distribution of the material by the user. 
Different types of deposit are possible. In a public deposit, the material is catalogued and made available to third parties. If intellectual property need to be protected, a safe deposit or patent deposit (Budapest Convention) can be chosen. Only the last two types of deposit are payable.

Even in cases where a researcher does not yet wish to deposit his material publicly for a short (e.g. before finishing a thesis or before publishing a scientific article) or longer (e.g. in the case of carrying out a more commercially oriented project) period, the safe deposit can provide (temporary) protection against accidental loss or contamination of the material.


What's in it for the researcher?


A deposit is an effective way for the researcher to preserve his material and make it available for further research. The culture collection/BRC takes care of all administration and practical work.
In publications, the researcher can refer to the material by the collection number assigned by the culture collection/BRC. 
The researcher who deposits is mentioned in the public catalogue information of the biological material concerned. He is thus recognised for his work and his work will be cited more.

The culture collection/BRC is an intermediary between the depositor and the user(s) of the biological material. If the user wishes to use the material for commercial purposes, the culture collection/BRC can bring the two parties together to negotiate a possible return. This way, all parties involved comply with the principle of benefit sharing as imposed by the Nagoya Protocol, which was transposed into European legislation by Regulation EU 511/2014.

All of this is made possible through the use of a Material Deposit Agreement, such as the BCCM MDA.