Although usually unrecognized, microorganisms are highly important genetic resources. These resources have extensive potential. Culture collections of microorganisms (genetic resource centers) are indispensable for the preservation and maintenance of valuable strains and mutants. A genetic resource center is an essential investment to guard against loss the massive investments made in long-term basic and applied microbiological research. The role of microbial genetic resource centers is essential because it is extremely difficult to reisolate from nature an exact replica of a particularly useful strain in the event of loss. Such a loss in most cases is final because retrieval from nature of a replica may only be possible at prohibitive cost. Besides an investment against loss of important resources, microbial genetic resource centers very often also are the origin of important research programs, supplying information and basic data in addition to the genetic resources.
After the United Nations Conference on Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Scientific Community launched a world-wide program for preserving microbial gene pools and making them accessible to developing countries. In 1974, the concept of the Microbiological Resource Center (MIRCEN) was formulated. In 1975, an action plan was developed to establish a world-wide network of MIRCENs with the following objectives:
- To provide the infrastructure for building a world network which would incorporate regional and interregional cooperating laboratories geared to the management, distribution, and utilization of the microbial gene pool.
- To strengthen efforts relating to the conservation of the microorganisms with emphasis on Rhizobiumgene pools in developing countries with an agrarian base.
- To foster the development of new expensive technologies that are native to the region.
- To promote the application of microbiology in the strengthening of rural economies.
- To serve as focal centers for the training of manpower and the imparting of microbiological knowledge.
One of the avenues pursued to reach these goals is the funding of short-term fellowships for training at one of the MIRCENs. Currently, the MIRCEN at Beltsville hosts trainees with UNESCO support as visiting scientists in the laboratory. Visitors receive hands on training in the microbiology of Rhizobium, usually by doing short-term research projects using approaches of molecular biology. However, training in more applied methods with relevance to the management of biological nitrogen fixation for efficient crop production are also available.