Earth BioGenome Project could be a game changer
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.