Thu, Dec 27, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Scientists fight ‘biopiracy’ with genetic data

By Chris Arsenault  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, TORONTO

In a bid to stop “biopiracy,” researchers are building a giant database to catalogue genetic material from the world’s largest rainforest.

From the rubber in car tires, to cosmetics and medicines, genetic material contained in the Amazon region has contributed to discoveries worth billions of US dollars.

However, communities living there have rarely benefited from the genetic wealth extracted from their land — a form of theft that legal experts call “biopiracy.”

Forest communities often remain impoverished, which can drive them to find other ways to make money, such as illegal logging, said Dominic Waughray, who heads the Amazon Bank of Codes project for the World Economic Forum.

“At the heart of the conservation debate is: How do you find a way for a person in the forest to get more cash in their hand right now from preserving that habitat rather than cutting it down?” Waughray said.

One solution involves compelling investors to pay royalties to local communities when using genetic sequences from organisms extracted from the forest, he said. The Amazon Bank of Codes would facilitate those payments.

Yet those genetic sequences first need to be mapped and stored online, which is what the project backers aim to do as early as 2020.

The Amazon is home to 10 percent of all known species on Earth, the WWF says.

That makes the region vulnerable to biopiracy, which is the unlawful appropriation or commercial use of biological materials native to a particular country without providing fair financial compensation to its people or government.

“The history of biopiracy runs deep in the Amazon basin,” Waughray said, citing early colonialists taking rubber trees from the region to create lucrative plantations in Malaysia.

In a more recent case, Brazilian prosecutors launched an investigation into a California-based company earlier this year, accusing it of using genetic components of the tropical acai berry in its nutritional supplements without paying for them.

In India, attempts to patent products such as basmati rice and properties of turmeric for medical use have sparked protests.

“The phenomenon has given rise to a huge outcry to have a more ethical approach to the use of biological resources,” said Ikechi Mgbeoji, a professor of intellectual property law at Toronto’s York University.

Internationally, the Nagoya Protocol, which came into force in 2014, governs how companies and researchers should equitably share benefits from genetic material, UN Convention on Biological Diversity official Valerie Normand said.

The agreement was “implemented precisely because developing countries, which are largely hot spots for biodiversity, were concerned about the misappropriation of their genetic resources,” Normand said.

The Amazon Bank of Codes would use blockchain — decentralized digital technology allowing users to track the origins and transfers of information — to catalogue specific pieces of genetic material.

If a company or researcher wanted to use a piece of genetic code for a new medicine, study or product, they could access the bank and see exactly where in the Amazon it came from, Waughray said.

Governments, indigenous groups, non-governmental organizations and others are discussing how the fees paid to use a genetic sequence would be distributed, Waughray said.

However, critics worry the project could actually make it easier for companies to steal genetic material.

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