Tag Archives: biological diversity

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

The Race for Genetic Resources, Bioprospecting vs. Biopiracy

On an international level, Indonesia signed the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing earlier this year.  The Nagoya Protocol is an international treaty under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that agrees on fair and equitable sharing from the utilization of genetic resources found in certain countriesThe protocol stipulates that those who produce genetic resources must provide benefit sharing with the country of origin of that particular genetic resource.  Benefit sharing may take the shape of funding, technology transfers or capacity building, depending on what is agreed bilaterally between the user and provider.  With more than 60 signatories, the Nagoya Protocol has now entered into force.

Of course, most signatories come from developing and resource-rich countries, and countries from the European Union, but the protocol is still missing major genetic resource users, such as the United States and Australia, from its signatory list.

The Nagoya Protocol is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD),a convention signed during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.  In December 1993, the CBD entered into force without the participation of the US. 

For Indonesia, signing the Nagoya Protocol provides a blessing if we can list down, catalog, and patent all of our native endemic species throughout the archipelago.  But if we fail to do this ahead of other countries, we will end up going downhill, paying royalties for what really originates from our own soil and seas.  Coffee, sugarcane, and palm oil are among some of the products that we might have to pay higher prices for in the future because the genetic resources of these products are claimed to originate from Brazil or South Africa and were only brought to Indonesia by the Dutch.  This presents a threat to our people, our national businesses and the country as a whole, but many people are still unaware of it.

As the world’s second megabiodiversity country, it is time that Indonesia resets its priorities to put the best interests of its natural resources first.  A three-pronged strategy is needed to achieve this, covering local, national and international dimensions.

First, on a national level the government needs to realize the urgency of bioprospecting and allocate a sufficient budget for this purpose.  Bioprospecting means identifying valuable components and genetic resources in fields such as horticulture, medicine, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and food and beverages.  But not only that, bioprospecting also involves creating a legal framework for compensation when materials and indigenous knowledge are shared with external parties.  Bioprospecting is needed to prevent actions of biopiracy or incidents where Indonesian genetic materials are “stolen” and stored in foreign banks for commercial purposes.  Biopiracy on Indonesian genetic materials has been a source of many biotechnology patents on a global level without ample economic returns to our country.

Second, this country must safeguard its genetic wealth by integrating a local approach within its national strategy. We need to actively involve local communities in the bioprospecting process. They are essentially the owners of these genetic resources and traditional knowledge. It is the local wisdom that is passed on for many generations that we need preserve and attribute the highest value to, and ensure that they receive equitable benefits, too.

The Environment Ministry has set up biodiversity centers in several provinces to identify and list down our endemic genetic resources. Coordinated bioprospecting efforts are also undertaken together with the Forestry Ministry, Agriculture Ministry and the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI).  But without the help of local tribes and communities, it will be near impossible to document all of the genetic resources and indigenous knowledge throughout this vast archipelago.

One successful effort in a developing country to prevent biopiracy is India’s Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), a database documenting traditional medicinal treatment that integrates diverse disciplines (Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha), various traditional languages (Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Urdu, Persian, and Tamil), as well as modern science and modern medicine.  The ancient texts of 34 million pages in the TKDL are made available in English, Japanese, French, German and Spanish.

Excerpts from Kinanti Kusumawardani. Bioprospecting: biodiversity at a crossroads, Jakarta Post, Nov. 10, 2011