A biobank is a repository for material from a representative portion of a human population with associated information describing or characterising the people to whom the genetic material (usually DNA) belongs.

The database of deCODE genetics, a company in Iceland, and the Utah Population Database are two examples of biobanks that are working to realise the potential for large molecular repositories. The United Kingdom Biobank intends to archive the genetic material of 500,000 individuals into a database that hopes to address complex diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, forms of dementia and other conditions. Howard University's National Human Genome Center announced plans to develop a biobank over the African diaspora.

Security and storage

Biobanks, like other DNA databases, must carefully store and document access to samples and donor information. The samples must be maintained reliably with minimal deterioration over time, and they must be protected from physical damage, both accidental and intentional. The registration of each sample entering and exiting the system is centrally stored, usually on a computer-based system that can be backed up frequently. The physical location of each sample is noted to allow the rapid location of specimens. Archival systems de-identify samples to respect the privacy of donors and allow blinding of researchers to analysis. The database, including clinical data, is kept separately with a secure method to link clinical information to tissue samples.

Room temperature storage of samples is sometimes used, and was developed in response to perceived disadvantages of low-temperature storage, such as costs and potential for freezer failure. Current systems are small and are capable of storing nearly 40,000 samples in about one tenth of the space required by a freezer. Replicates or split samples are often stored in separate locations for security.

One controversy of large databases of genetic material is the question of ownership of samples. To date, Iceland has had three different laws on ownership of the physical samples and the information they contain. Current Icelandic law holds that the Icelandic government has custodial rights of the physical samples themselves while the donors retain ownership rights. In contrast, Tonga and Estonia give ownership of biobank samples to the government, but their laws include strong protections of donor rights.

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