The World Federation for Culture Collections (WFCC) is a Multidisciplinary Commission of the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS) and a Federation within the International Union of Microbiological Societies (IUMS). Created in 1970, WFCC federates now more than 700 Culture Collections (CCs) established in more than 70 countries.

Culture Collections are specialised infrastructures with decades of expertise in long term ex situ conservation of living microbial material. These assets of fundamental scientific importance must be conserved and provided with the highest level of reliability to ensure cumulative research, to build microbiology on solid ground. This requires that scientists routinely deposit significant strains in CCs on the one hand, and on the other hand a worldwide coordinated effort of the CCs to optimize the long-term preservation of their holdings[1]. CCs have evolved from mere centres of conservation and distribution of microbiological material to “Biological Resources Centres (BRC)”[2], conceived as basic infrastructures, sources of all essentials for Research and Innovation in Knowledge Base Bio-Economy[3]. The concept of BRC was thought up as early as 1946, at UNESCO, on the set up of the MIRCEN - Microbial Resources Centres Network – program. In 1999, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Task Force on BRC initiated the development of the concept into the 21st century, pointing out the crucial roles of BRCs for research, underlining the necessity to provide the adequate support to enable the BRCs to meet the increasing challenges of biodiversity and genomics.

While the emphasis was previously put on the biological resources conserved in specialized facilities, at present a BRC is conceived as a functional unit having all the necessary components to study, preserve and exploit biological diversity. It integrates appropriate infrastructure, human, financial and technical resources, skills related to information production, processing and diffusion as well as legal, administrative, management and quality control systems. Since 2013, the ISO standard 276 Technical Committee calls CCs "Microbial Biobanks", by which it recognizes the increasing role of collections as key socio-economic actors in biotechnology.

This evolution of the socio-economic role of collections goes with technical and scientific change. In the nineteen century and until the middle of the twentieth century the exploration of the microbial realm was mainly carried out in wet laboratory, based on growing pure cultures of microbes in laboratory. The development of bioinformatics and the inclusion of a more complex reality, apprehending the microbiota and the microbiomes, have revolutionised microbiology where digital tools play a central role. The research infrastructures in microbiology, including the microbial Biobanks, have to integrate this new research paradigm as well as the growing institutional and legal constraints into their business plan. In microbiology like in other disciplines, the pattern of complementary distinctive basic and applied sciences is replaced by a continuum of upstream and downstream researches producing flows of data and information handled via bioinformatics[4]. In Knowledge Based Bio-Economy, the various players in this R&D flow are closely tangled in an interdisciplinary fabric where CCs are providers of raw material as well as infrastructures underpinning scientific activities.

The culture collections community provides for facilitated access to as well technically as legally fit for use microbiological resources of consistent quality. Optimal collaboration between the providers and the users of raw material is necessary to produce valuable -exploitable- research outcomes. It requires appropriate policies regarding Intellectual Property Rights management as required by the TRIPS Agreement[5] and regulated by the Budapest Treaty[6] administrated by WIPO[7], and also material distribution policies in accordance with the provisions of the Nagoya Protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity[8]. That requires mastering the public and proprietary laws interface, as well as expertise in managing tangible and intangible rights related to microorganisms and related data. The role of CCs is not anymore limited to providing for microbial material and related scientific data. Now CCs are expected to provide also for legal and administrative services, even advising lawmakers and decision makers on research policy. But while the roles and duties of CCs extend the funding don't.  

WDCM, 50 years of experience, from pioneering to breakthrough

Created on the onset of WFCC, the World Data Centre for Microorganisms (WDCM) fulfils several roles. The WDCM website is the communication tool and the data hub of WFCC where users can find information on where to find microbiological material. WFCC registers the collections through a unique acronym and numerical identifier in the official WFCC directory of collections: CCINFO. CCINFO publishes information on the organisation, management, services and fields of expertise of every collection. It is one of four major complementary interconnected tools forming the information system of WDCM. While the CCINFO directory provides information about the collections, the collections' catalogues display their holdings. To create a catalogue of microorganisms, taxonomists define the Minimum Data Set (MDS) necessary for accurate identification of microbiological material while bioinformatics professionals structure the database of microbiological material. The database is published as online or printed catalogue. Combining the culture collection's acronym recorded in CCINFO with the numbering of every strain in the catalogues creates a code called strain number. Combining the strain number with electronic markers called “Globally Unique Identifiers" (GUIDs)[9] links every strains to all kinds of data stored in various databases in different institutions: scientific, technical, administrative, legal, etc., for any kind of use: research, conveyance, resources conservation, study, exploitation, etc. The catalogue's entries of CCs are thus the interfaces between wet lab products and the dry lab data. Once a microorganism is deposited in a WFCC member collection and is assigned a number in the online catalogue it can be traced in all online scientific and technical literature, including patent files.

WDCM has designed and manages the ground breaking Global Catalogue of Microorganisms(GCM)[10] which combines as many online catalogues as possible, creating a robust system connecting the strain information with all kinds of data, such as nucleic acids sequences, proteins, references, citations, etc. All information is accessible through one portal. GCM acts as information broker between the online catalogue entries of the culture collections and the multiple users. WDCM becomes a "one-stop-source" portal where scientists can find information about microbial resources, their characteristics and where they can purchase it.

Serving biotechnology, in line with the legal evolution

As it may convey the transfers of microbiological items, keeping track of the flow of resources and concatenate data, GCM can play a central role in the implementation of Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) principles regulated by the Nagoya Protocol which entered into force in October 2014. The system can potentially retrieve all kinds of information about microbiological resources, including information related to the possession, location, transfers and use of microbial strains, including country of origin, existence of PIC and MAT, the creation of derived patents and all kinds of associated scientific publications. The flow of ABS related information generated by GCM will be connected to the ABS Clearing House Mechanism via machine-processed link. GCM already involves more than 80 collections from more than 35 countries and information on nearly 360.000 strains from 45.000 species. That makes GCM a transparent, safe and sustainable data management system of ex situ microbial diversity worldwide. With GCM, WDCM strengthens the bridging role of WFCC between providers and users of microbiological resources. GCM is a powerful scientific tool as well as a way to build safe, ethical and socio-economically balanced ABS processes at global level. Systems like GCM are automated and thus cost effective. Nevertheless non-negligible investments are and will be necessary to manage the flow of data generated by ABS requirements. In addition WDCM proposes training and software to help WFCC members to catalogue their microbiological resources.

To back up your fellow scientists, you need to be on the front line. CCs are constantly adapting to fulfil their role under the evolving biosciences paradigm, with fewer funds and more duties, improving their Information & Communication Technology capacities, striving for minimum quality standards and scientific excellence. To meet these challenges cooperation into structured and integrated networks, at national, regional or international level is needed. WFCC was created at the instigation of microbiological societies to serve microbiology. It can progress with the inspiration of IUMS.

Please visit us at

Philippe Desmeth

President of the World Federation for Culture Collections.

Belgian Coordinated Collections of Micro-organisms, Belgian Science Policy Office, avenue Louise, 231 1050 Brussels, Belgium. Email:



[1]     Stackebrandt, E. (2010). Diversification and focusing: strategies of microbial culture collections. Trends in Microbiology Elsevier 18, 283-287.

[2]     Biological Resource Centres Underpinning the future of Life Sciences and Biotechnology, 2001, OECD, Paris. . OECD Best Practice Guidelines for BRC, 2007, OECD, Paris WFCC Guidelines.

[3]     KBBE can be defined as “transforming life sciences knowledge into new, sustainable, eco-efficient and competitive products”. “Knowledge based” refers to the increasing amount of data on biological material produced as research outputs, and processed by analytical tools. The term “bio-economy” includes all industries and economic sectors that produce, manage and exploit biological resources (agriculture, food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and other bio-based industries). Advanced biotechnology is breaking new ground in understanding microbial diversity and bio-processes that could lead to valuable bio-products and bio-materials. See New Perspectives on the Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy, Conference Report, European Commission, Brussels, 2005.

[4]     Stokes, D.E. (1997). Pasteur's quadrant: basic science and technological innovation. The Brookings Institution, Washington, USA. ISBN 0-8157-8178-4

[5]     Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. The TRIPS Agreement is Annex 1C of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization, signed in Marrakesh, Morocco on 15 April 1994. See World Trade Organisation website

[6]     Budapest Treaty on the International Recognition of the Deposit of Microorganisms for the Purposes of Patent Procedure

[7]   World Intellectual Property Organization

[8]     The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It provides a legal framework for the effective implementation of one of the three objectives of the CBD: the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. It entered into force on 12 October 2014. The Nagoya Protocol applies to genetic resources that are covered by the CBD, and to the benefits arising from their utilization


[10]   Global catalogue of microorganisms (GCM): a comprehensive database and information retrieval, analysis, and visualization system for microbial resources; Wu et al. BMC Genomics 2013, 14:933 http://www; and

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