Map­ping bio­di­ver­sity

Earth BioGenome Project could be a game changer

Business Standard - - OPINION -

The Earth BioGenome Project, which was launched on November 1 by a loose as­so­ci­a­tion of in­sti­tu­tions, is stag­ger­ing in the scale of its am­bi­tion. It aims to sam­ple, de­code and store the DNA of every known species of plant and an­i­mal on Earth. This is to be done in three phases over a 10-year time­line. It will re­quire the study of at least 1.5 mil­lion species and will cost up­wards of $4.7 bil­lion. This “blue sky” project could po­ten­tially trig­ger mul­ti­ple rev­o­lu­tions in bio­sciences. First of all, as bio­di­ver­sity dis­ap­pears at an ever-in­creas­ing rate, the BioGenome Project will help to record the genomes of or­gan­isms at risk. Given Cli­mate Change and re­lated wor­ries such as loss of for­est cover, about 50 per cent of cur­rent bio­di­ver­sity could be lost by the end of the 21st cen­tury in what is be­ing re­ferred to as the Sixth Great Ex­tinc­tion. At the very least, the BioGenome Project could pre­serve some knowl­edge about those doomed species.

Beyond this, it is cer­tain to lead to the dis­cov­ery of many hith­erto un­known species. It is be­lieved that there are some­where be­tween 2 mil­lion and 3 mil­lion eu­kary­otic species (com­plex multi-celled or­gan­isms with nu­clei and chro­mo­somes) on the planet. Only about half have been iden­ti­fied so far. Of th­ese, there have been ge­nomic stud­ies of only 3,500 species and just about 100 species have had their genomes se­quenced at a “ref­er­ence quality”, which can be used for in-depth re­search. Apart from new species, it should also lead to the dis­cov­ery of new drugs, new bio­fu­els, and boost agri­cul­tural tech­nolo­gies, with ob­vi­ous com­mer­cial ben­e­fits.

The cost es­ti­mates are ac­tu­ally not ex­or­bi­tant by the stan­dards of “Big Sci­ence”. The Hu­man Genome Project cost about $3 bil­lion in 1990-2003 and it helped de­velop mod­ern se­quenc­ing tech­niques, which have vastly im­proved the ef­fi­ciency while re­duc­ing the costs of ge­nomic re­search. The Large Hadron Col­lider (LHC) cost over $4 bil­lion to build and, like the Earth BioGenome Project, the LHC saw in­sti­tu­tions and re­searchers from all around the world pitch­ing in. But this project is con­cep­tu­alised on a very dif­fer­ent model from the LHC. It is to be much more de­cen­tralised. There would be nodal in­sti­tu­tions across the planet — 17 such in­sti­tu­tions have signed up so far — deal­ing with lo­cal bio­di­ver­sity stud­ies. As such, the BioGenome project sub­sumes many lo­cal ini­tia­tives and, there­fore, helps tap into and en­er­gise on­go­ing re­search ini­tia­tives. The par­tic­i­pat­ing in­sti­tu­tions would raise their own fund­ing as far as pos­si­ble, and study and cat­a­logue lo­cal species. Since the project has the back­ing of the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, it is likely there won’t be prob­lems rais­ing fund­ing for many of the “sub-pro­jects” at least. Phys­i­cal sam­ples would be stored frozen in liq­uid ni­tro­gen in four or more fa­cil­i­ties lo­cated in dif­fer­ent parts of the world, and repos­i­to­ries of digi­tised in­for­ma­tion would be cre­ated. The com­pleted project will gen­er­ate at least 1 ex­abyte (that is, 1 bil­lion gi­ga­bytes) of data, which is to be shared on­line for free.

But there will be ma­jor hur­dles and chal­lenges to over­come, es­pe­cially in terms of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights, be­fore this can hap­pen. There are com­pli­cated pro­to­cols in­volved in trans­fer­ring phys­i­cal sam­ples and ge­netic data across bor­ders, and there are bound to be dis­putes about the shar­ing of the ben­e­fits ob­tained. While the Nagoya Pro­to­cols of 2014 pro­vide a frame­work for such trans­fers, the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity will have to work out new pro­to­cols and, ide­ally, cre­ate a new, trans­par­ent and eq­ui­table le­gal frame­work. In it­self, such an ad­vance on the cur­rent regime could lead to po­ten­tially mas­sive ben­e­fits for re­searchers ev­ery­where. It could help to boost sci­en­tific ca­pac­ity and gen­er­ate rev­enues for poor coun­tries with rich bio­di­ver­sity.

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