Tag Archives: biodiversity convention

An Earth Bank of Codes: who owns what in the biological world

image from wikipedia

A project with the scale and sweep of the original Human Genome Project…should be to gather DNA sequences from specimens of all complex life on Earth. They decided to call it the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP).

At around the same time as this meeting, a Peruvian entrepreneur living in São Paulo, Brazil, was formulating an audacious plan of his own. Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio wanted to shift the economy of the Amazon basin away from industries such as mining, logging and ranching, and towards one based on exploiting the region’s living organisms and the biological information they embody. At least twice in the past—with the businesses of rubber-tree plantations, and of blood-pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors, which are derived from snake venom—Amazonian organisms have helped create industries worth billions of dollars. ….

For the shift he had in mind to happen, though, he reasoned that both those who live in the Amazon basin and those who govern it would have to share in the profits of this putative new economy. And one part of ensuring this happened would be to devise a way to stop a repetition of what occurred with rubber and ACE inhibitors—namely, their appropriation by foreign firms, without royalties or tax revenues accruing to the locals.

Such thinking is not unique to Mr Castilla. An international agreement called the Nagoya protocol already gives legal rights to the country of origin of exploited biological material. What is unique, or at least unusual, about Mr Castilla’s approach, though, is that he also understands how regulations intended to enforce such rights can get in the way of the research needed to turn knowledge into profit. To that end he has been putting his mind to the question of how to create an open library of the Amazon’s biological data (particularly DNA sequences) in a way that can also track who does what with those data, and automatically distribute part of any commercial value that results from such activities to the country of origin. He calls his idea the Amazon Bank of Codes.

Now, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, a Swiss ski resort, these two ideas have come together. On January 23, 2018 it was announced that the EBP will help collect the data to be stored in the code bank. The EBP’s stated goal is to sequence, within a decade, the genomes of all 1.5m known species of eukaryotes. ..That is an ambitious timetable. The first part would require deciphering more than eight genomes a day; the second almost 140; the third, about 1,000. For comparison, the number of eukaryotic genomes sequenced so far is about 2,500…

Big sequencing centres like BGI in China, the Rockefeller University’s Genomic Resource Centre in America, and the Sanger Institute in Britain, as well as a host of smaller operations, are all eager for their share of this pot. For the later, cruder, stages of the project Complete Genomics, a Californian startup bought by BGI, thinks it can bring the cost of a rough-and-ready sequence down to $100. A hand-held sequencer made by Oxford Nanopore, a British company, may be able to match that and also make the technology portable…..It is an effort in danger of running into the Nagoya protocol. Permission will have to be sought from every government whose territory is sampled. That will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Indeed, John Kress of the Smithsonian, another of the EBP’s founders, says many previous sequencing ventures have foundered on the rock of such permission. And that is why those running the EBP are so keen to recruit Mr Castilla and his code bank.

The idea of the code bank is to build a database of biological information using a blockchain. Though blockchains are best known as the technology that underpins bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, they have other uses. In particular, they can be employed to create “smart contracts” that monitor and execute themselves. To obtain access to Mr Castilla’s code bank would mean entering into such a contract, which would track how the knowledge thus tapped was subsequently used. If such use was commercial, a payment would be transferred automatically to the designated owners of the downloaded data. Mr Castilla hopes for a proof-of-principle demonstration of his platform to be ready within a few months.

In theory, smart contracts of this sort would give governments wary of biopiracy peace of mind, while also encouraging people to experiment with the data. And genomic data are, in Mr Castilla’s vision, just the start. He sees the Amazon Bank of Codes eventually encompassing all manner of biological compounds—snake venoms of the sort used to create ACE inhibitors, for example—or even behavioural characteristics like the congestion-free movement of army-ant colonies, which has inspired algorithms for co-ordinating fleets of self-driving cars. His eventual goal is to venture beyond the Amazon itself, and combine his planned repository with similar ones in other parts of the world, creating an Earth Bank of Codes.

[I]f the EBP succeeds, be able to use the evolutionary connections between genomes to devise a definitive version of the tree of eukaryotic life. That would offer biologists what the periodic table offers chemists, namely a clear framework within which to operate. Mr Castilla, for his part, would have rewritten the rules of international trade by bringing the raw material of biotechnology into an orderly pattern of ownership. If, as many suspect, biology proves to be to future industries what physics and chemistry have been to industries past, that would be a feat of lasting value.

Excerpts from Genomics, Sequencing the World, Economist, Jan. 27, 2018

Engineering Coral Reefs

Coral Reef, image from wikipedia

In the past half-century, though, these beautiful, biodiverse structures have been put under pressure by human activity. About a quarter of all coral cover has died. The reefs that are in worst shape are those off the most crowded beaches. “People don’t leave enough time for their sun cream to soak in, so it gets in the water,” says one deckhand with Eo Wai’anae Tours, which organises boat trips off Oahu. More damage is caused by fertiliser-rich run-off from farms, leading to algal blooms which block light the corals need. Fishing near reefs cuts the number of herbivorous fish, allowing vegetation to grow out of control. Some fishing methods are particularly harmful: for example, blast fishermen in Colombia, Tanzania and elsewhere use dynamite to stun and kill fish without regard to the harm done to nearby reefs…In the South China Seaisland-building and fishing for giant clams are crushing some reefs beyond the possibility of recovery (seearticle)….

Tourism generated by the Great Barrier Reef is worth about $4.6 billion annually to nearby Queensland alone. Australian bigwigs bent over backwards last year to keep the UN from listing the reef, a World Heritage Site, as “in danger”. Estimates suggest that the economic value of Martinique and Saint Lucia’s corals comes to $50,000 per square km each year, thanks largely to tourism. But overdevelopment threatens the reefs the visitors come to gawp at. Sediment from construction clouds waters, burying corals and blocking the light they need. Hotels close to the shore may be convenient for tourists, but the process of building them can kill the reefs that snorkellers like to swim over…The three countries with the largest numbers of people who fish on reefs are all in the coral-triangle region: Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. In Indonesia and in the Philippines, up to 1m people’s livelihoods depend on reefs.

Averting a tragedy of the commons means agreeing which activities should be restricted and enforcing the rules. For coral reefs—and other biodiverse marine environments—the usual approach is to give ecologically sensitive areas special status under local or regional laws. In such “marine protected areas” (MPAs), activities that are deemed harmful, such as fishing, drilling and mining, can then be restricted or banned, with penalties for rule-breakers.

The Aichi targets, agreed in 2010 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, seek to reduce “anthropogenic pressures” on coral reefs to “maintain their integrity and function”. The aim is to have at least 17% of inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas under conservation by 2020. Most countries have signed up. But the targets are far from being met. Less than 3% of the ocean’s surface is within an MPA.

The most urgent action is needed close to shore. The nearer humans are to reefs, the worse their effect on the fragile ecosystems. A global register of fishing vessels, long under discussion, would also help identify wrongdoers. And beefing up the UN law of the sea could inspire further action. Decades old, it has little to say about biodiversity.

But simply declaring an area protected does not make it so. In 2009 George Bush junior, then president of America, established three national marine monuments in the Pacific, including nearly 518,000 square km of coral islands and surrounding areas. Their remoteness makes it hard to stop vessels entering illegally; Hawaii’s coastguard is already stretched.

Satellites are sometimes used to police MPAs, but they pass over infrequently. In the future, sailing robots could play a larger role. America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been working with a private firm, Saildrone, on hardy models equipped with carbon-fibre fins. They cost less than $500,000 each and can roam remote ocean regions for months, making them far cheaper than manned boats.

Such drones could photograph rogue fishing vessels, obtaining hard-to-gather evidence for any criminal proceedings. And they could carry out other useful work at the same time, such as monitoring ocean temperature and acidity or tracking tagged members of endangered species. Saildrone plans to provide its robots as a service, so that universities and other cash-strapped organisations do not have to buy one outright…

Even if the right policies are adopted to keep corals healthy in the immediate future, longer-term threats loom. Neither oceanic warming nor acidification can be kept out by an MPA. And both may be happening too fast for corals to adapt, especially as recent global climate deals will not slow them much. Back slaps and handshakes accompanied the inclusion of an aim to limit global warming to just 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in the Paris Agreement last year. But only an incorrigible optimist would bet on that aim being achieved.

So researchers are turning their attention to ways to help corals cope. Their global diversity, scientists hope, may hold the key. The same coral will grow differently under different conditions: corals of the western Pacific near Indonesia, for example, can withstand higher temperatures than the same species in the eastern Pacific near Hawaii….The characteristics that help some reefs survive unusual conditions could allow others to endure climate change. But tough corals from one place cannot simply be transplanted to another. So a team at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology is in the early stages of engineering reef ecosystems, with $4m from the Paul G. Allen Foundation, a charity set up by Bill Gates’s former business partner.

Organisms respond to environmental changes through both genetic processes (adaptation) and non-genetic ones (acclimatisation). With corals, the nature of their symbiotic relationships can also alter. So selectively breeding and conditioning them, and investigating whether certain types of algae confer resistance to heat or acidity, could create hardier varieties faster than they would develop naturally.

These could then be used to repopulate ravaged reefs—once more is known about how and where to transplant them. “We’re assisting evolution,” explains Ruth Gates, who leads the research.

Marine conservation: Rejuvenating reefs, Economist, Feb. 13, at 57

How to Protect Marine Biodiversity in the Open Seas

deep blue sea

The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on May 2015 (reissued on June 2015) aimed at drafting a legally binding international treaty for the conservation of marine biodiversity and to govern the mostly lawless high seas beyond national jurisdiction.The resolution was the result of more than nine years of negotiations by an Ad Hoc Informal Working Group, which first met in 2006.

If and when the treaty is adopted, it will be the first global treaty to include conservation measures such as marine protected areas and reserves, environmental impact assessments, access to marine genetic resources and benefit sharing, capacity building and the transfer of marine technology.

The High Seas Alliance (HSA), a coalition of some 27 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), played a significant role in pushing for negotiations on the proposed treaty and has been campaigning for this resolution since 2011…The General Assembly will decide by September of 2018 on the convening of an intergovernmental conference to finalise the text of the agreement and set a start date for the conference….

A new treaty would help to organise and coordinate conservation and management [in the high seas].  That includes the ability to create fully protected marine reserves that are closed off to harmful activities. Right now there is no way to arrange for such legally binding protections, she added….In a statement released Friday, the HSA said the resolution follows the Rio+20 conference in 2012 where Heads of State committed to address high seas protection.The conference came close to agreeing to a new treaty then, but was prevented from doing so by a few governments which have remained in opposition to a Treaty ever since.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is recognised as the “constitution” for global ocean governance, has a broad scope and does not contain the detailed provisions necessary to address specific activities, nor does it establish a management mechanism and rules for biodiversity protection in the high seas.  Since the adoption of UNCLOS in 1982, there have been two subsequent implementing agreements to address gaps and other areas that were not sufficiently covered under UNCLOS, one related to seabed mining and the other related to straddling and highly migratory fish stocks, she added. This new agreement will be the third implementing agreement developed under UNCLOS….

The “high seas” is the ocean beyond any country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) ‑ amounting to 64 percent of the ocean…

Excerpts from Thalif Deen, U.N. Takes First Step Towards Treaty to Curb Lawlessness in High Seas, IPS, June 19 2015

The Politics of Fighting Biopiracy: European Union

Pelargonium Sidoides.  Image from wikipedia

The European Union is debating a biopiracy law requiring industry to compensate indigenous people if it makes commercial use of local knowledge such as plant-based medicines.  Under the law – based on the international convention on access to biodiversity, the Nagoya protocol – the pharmaceuticals industry would need the written consent of local or indigenous people before exploring their region’s genetic resources or making use of their traditional know-how. Relevant authorities would have the power to sanction companies which failed to comply, protecting local interests from the predatory attitude of big European companies.

A German pharmaceutical company’s dealings in South Africa [is an example of biopiracy].  Pelargonium sidoides, a variety of geranium known for its antimicrobial and expectorant qualities, has been used traditionally by indigenous communities in South Africa for centuries to treat bronchitis and other respiratory diseases. It also stimulates the nervous system, so has been used in the treatment of AIDS and tuberculosis.  In 2000, the German company Schwabe made significant profits on Umckaloabo, a product derived from the geranium, without compensating local communities. It then filed patents claiming exclusive rights to the medical use of the plant.

But in 2010 the patents were cancelled following appeals from the African Centre for Biosafety in South Africa and the Bern Declaration in Switzerland, calling the patents “an illegitimate and illegal monopolization of genetic resources derived from traditional knowledge and a stark opposition to the Convention on Biodiversity.”…[The] law would help protect biodiversity and ensure that the people from the region are adequately compensated for their resource and their traditional know-how. …The need to ensure the property rights of indigenous populations becomes more pressing as industry looks more and more to plant and animal-based cures to common diseases.Only 16 countries have ratified the Nagoya protocol. The European Union and its 24 of its 27 member states have signed the convention, but are yet to ratify it. When they do, Nagoya should soon reach the 50 states needed for it to come into force…  “The 16 states are countries in the South…

Excerpts, EU ponders biopiracy law to protect indigeneous people, EurActiv, April 26,  2013

See also EU portal on Biodiversity and Benefits Sharing

See also article on Alice v. Schwabe

Ecological Restoration Alliance to Save Threatened Habitats

Botanic gardens around the world will sign an historic agreement on 23 May 2012 to restore the world’s damaged ecosystems.  Responding to a United Nations target to restore at least 15 percent of the world’s damaged ecosystems by 2020, the following institutions have agreed to work together to form a new Ecological Restoration Alliance:

•Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK

•Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, UK

•Missouri Botanical Garden, USA

•Brackenhurst Botanic Garden, Kenya

•Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Australia

•National Tropical Botanical Garden, USA

•Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden, Brazil

•Instituto de Ecología, A.C. “Francisco Javier Clavijero Botanic Garden”, Mexico

•Royal Botanical Gardens, Canada

The Alliance has ambitious aims, with a plan to restore 100 damaged, degraded or destroyed ecosystems. Restoration projects will be conducted on six continents, drawing on the proven restoration knowledge, capacity and experience of the allied botanic gardens, arboreta and seed banks.  The places to be targeted include tropical forests, prairies, wild places within cities, wetlands and coastal sites – ecosystems that are under threat and are no longer able to provide essential services and resources for sustaining human livelihoods and biodiversity.

Other botanic gardens in China, South Africa, UK, USA and Venezuela are committed to joining or supporting the Alliance. The combined expertise of members will be drawn together to build global capacity for pragmatic yet well-informed ecological restoration. The lessons learned from the initial flagship projects will be applied to other places, enhancing the contribution of restoration to achieving a healthy and sustainable planet. A new generation of practitioners will be trained and guidance provided to industry and governments toward best practices for land restoration. This ambitious 20 year initiative, developed by botanic gardens and facilitated by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), responds to urgent global needs expressed in both the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the Millennium Development Goals.

For  more info see Ecological Restoration Alliance