Tag Archives: bioprospecting

The Biopiracy Backlash

Indonesia‘s rich biodiversity and complex geology have lured scientists from abroad for centuries. But a law adopted on 16 July 2019 by Indonesia’s parliament may convince some to go elsewhere. The legislation includes strict requirements on foreign scientists doing research in Indonesia, including the need to recruit local collaborators and a near-ban on exporting specimens, along with stiff sanctions, including jail time, for violators.

Muhammad Dimyati, director-general of research development at Indonesia’s Ministry of Research, Technology, and Higher Education (commonly known as RISTEK) in Jakarta, says the law is needed to protect Indonesia’s natural resources and develop the country’s research enterprise. But some Indonesian scientists fear the consequences. “Our international collaborations will be stifled,” says Berry Juliandi, a biologist at Bogor Agricultural University and secretary of the Indonesian Young Academy of Science. Indeed, marine biologist Philippe Borsa of the French Research Institute for Development in Montpellier says the law—and an increasingly unfriendly climate for foreign researchers—is a reason for him not to return to Indonesia, where he has studied the phylogeography of stingrays.

The new law also establishes the National Research Agency, a giant new institution that may subsume most government research centers, including the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta. Details still need to be fleshed out, but some scientists worry the new agency will concentrate too much power in a few hands. The law’s most contentious provisions, however, are those that apply to foreign researchers.

From now on, their research has to be “beneficial for Indonesia.” They need to get ethical clearance from an Indonesian review board for every study, submit primary data and published papers to the government, involve Indonesian scientists as equal partners, and share any benefits, such as the proceeds from new drugs, resulting from the study. Researchers can’t take samples or even digital information out of the country, except for tests that cannot be done in Indonesian labs, and to do so, they need a so-called material transfer agreement (MTA) using a template provided by the government.

In most cases, violators will lose their research permit, but some offenses carry steeper penalties. Scientists who fail to obtain a proper permit will be blacklisted for 5 years; repeat offenders risk a $290,000 fine. Failure to comply with the MTA requirements is punishable by 2 years in prison or a $145,000 fine. ..Indonesia has become increasingly concerned about biopiracy.  In 2018,, for instance, a dispute erupted over a genetic study of Sulawesi’s “sea nomads”—an indigenous fishing group that appears to have evolved bigger spleens to store oxygenated blood during long dives. Indonesian researchers called it an example of Western “helicopter science.”. 

Megalara garuda

A 2017 document introducing the new law, signed by RISTEK Minister Mohamad Nasir, singled out another alleged example: the discovery of Megalara garuda, a giant venomous wasp, on Sulawesi, published in 2012 by entomologist Lynn Kimsey of the University of California (UC), Davis, along with a German researcher who found the same insect in a Berlin collection. LIPI entomologist Rosichon Ubaidillah tells Science that he and a junior colleague collected the wasps and that he suggested the name garuda—a mythical bird and national symbol of Indonesia—during a visit to UC Davis. But neither of them was a co-author on the paper; Ubaidillah was mentioned in an acknowledgement, his colleague not at all. Kimsey violated a memorandum of understanding between LIPI and UC Davis, he adds. LIPI, enraged, asked Kimsey to return the wasps she took home.

Excerpts from Dyna Rochmyaningsih, Indonesia gets tough on foreign scientists, Science, July 26, 2019

How to Strengthen the Immune System of Plants: biodiversity

n the past 150 years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 410 ppm. For farmers this is mixed news. Any change in familiar weather patterns caused by the atmospheric warming this rise is bringing is bound to be disruptive. But more carbon dioxide means more fuel for photosynthesis and therefore enhanced growth—sometimes by as much as 40%. And for those in temperate zones, rising temperatures may bring milder weather and a longer growing season. (In the tropics the effects are not so likely to be benign.) What is not clear, though, and not much investigated, is how rising CO2 levels will affect the relation between crops and the diseases that affect them…

Plant biology is altered substantially by a range of environmental factors. This makes it difficult to predict what effect a changing climate will have on particular bits of agriculture. Carbon dioxide is a case in point. It enhances growth of many plants but,  it also shifts the defences to favour some types of disease over others.

To make matters even more complicated, evidence is mounting that changes in temperature and water availability also shift plant immune responses. André Velásquez and Sheng Yang He, at Michigan State University, wrote an extensive review on the warfare between plants and diseases in Current Biology in 2018. They noted that though some valuable crops, such as potatoes and rice, experience less disease as moisture levels increase, this is not the case for most plants. High humidity, in general, favours the spread of botanical diseases. The same can be said for temperature—with some diseases, like papaya ringspot virus, thriving in rising temperatures while others, for example potato cyst, are weakened.

The problems are daunting, then, but there is a way to try to solve them… Genes which grant resistance to diseases that might become severe in the future need to be tracked down. Modern crops have been streamlined by artificial selection to be excellent at growing today. This means that they have the genes they need to flourish when faced with the challenges expected from current conditions, but nothing more. Such crops are thus vulnerable to changes in their environment.  One way to find genes that may alter this state of affairs is to look to crops’ wild relatives. Uncossetted by farmers, these plants must survive disease by themselves—and have been fitted out by evolution with genes to do so. Borrowing their dna makes sense. But that means collecting and cataloguing them. This is being done, but not fast enough. The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, a charity which works in the area, reckons that about 30% of the wild relatives of modern crops are unrepresented in gene banks, and almost all of the rest are underrepresented….

[This is becuase] most countries are, rightly, protective of their genetic patrimony. If money is to be made by incorporating genes from their plants into crops, they want to have a share of it. It is therefore incumbent on rich countries to abide by rules that enable poor ones to participate in seed collecting without losing out financially. Poor, plant-rich countries are in any case those whose farmers are most likely to be hurt by global warming. It would be ironic if that were made worse because genes from those countries’ plants were unavailable to future-proof the world’s crops.

Excerpts from Blocking the Road to Rusty Death: Climate Change and Crop Disease, Economist,  Apr. 20, 2019

Who Owns the Genes in the Seas?

It’s an eye-catching statistic: A single company, the multinational chemical giant BASF, owns nearly half of the patents issued on 13,000 DNA sequences from marine organisms. That number is now helping fuel high-stakes global negotiations on a contentious question: how to fairly regulate the growing exploitation of genes collected in the open ocean, beyond any nation’s jurisdiction.

The negotiations that took place at the UN in September 2018 aim, inter alia, to replace today’s free-for-all scramble for marine genetic resources with a more orderly and perhaps more just regime.  Many developed nations and industry groups are adamant that any new rules should not complicate efforts to discover and patent marine genes that may help create better chemicals, cosmetics, and crops. But many developing nations want rules that will ensure they, too, share in any benefits. Scientists are also watching. A regulatory regime that is too burdensome could have “a negative impact” on scientists engaged in “noncommercial ocean research,” warns Robert Blasiak, a marine policy specialist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.  It is not the first time nations have wrangled over how to share genetic resources. Under another U.N. pact, the 2010 Nagoya Protocol, 105 countries have agreed to rules to prevent so-called biopiracy: the removal of biological resources—such as plant or animal DNA—from a nation’s habitats without proper permission or compensation.

Those rules don’t apply in international waters, which begin 200 nautical miles from shore and are attracting growing interest from researchers and companies searching for valuable genes. The first patent on DNA from a marine organism was granted in 1988 for a sequence from the European eel, which spends part of its life in freshwater. Since then, more than 300 companies, universities, and others have laid claim to sequences from 862 marine species, a team led by Blasiak reported in June in Science Advances. Extremophiles have been especially prized. Genes from worms found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, for example, encode polymers used in cosmetics. And BASF has patented other worm DNA that the company believes could help improve crop yields. The conglomerate, based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, says it found most of its 5700 sequences in public databases…

It may take years for nations to agree on a marine biodiversity treaty; [A]n “ideological divide” between developing and developed countries has, so far, “led to stalemate” on how to handle marine genetic resources, says Harriet Harden-Davies, a policy expert at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Most developing nations want to expand the “common heritage” philosophy embedded in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which declares that resources found on or under the seabed, such as minerals, are the “common heritage of mankind.” Applying that principle to genetic resources would promote “solidarity in the preservation and conservation of a good we all share,” South Africa’s negotiating team said in a recent statement. Under such an approach, those who profit from marine genes could, for example, pay into a global fund that would be used to compensate other nations for the use of shared resources, possibly supporting scientific training or conservation.

But developed nations including the United States, Russia, and Japan oppose extending the “common heritage” language, fearing burdensome and unworkable regulations. They argue access to high seas genes should be guaranteed to all nations under the principle of the “freedom of the high seas,” also enshrined in the Law of the Sea. That approach essentially amounts to finders keepers, although countries traditionally have balanced unfettered access with other principles, such as the value of conservation, in developing rules for shipping, fishing, and research in international waters.

The European Union and other parties want to sidestep the debate and seek a middle ground. One influential proposal would allow nations to prospect for high seas genes, but require that they publish the sequences they uncover. Companies could also choose to keep sequences private temporarily, in order to be able to patent them, if they contribute to an international fund that would support marine research by poorer nations. “Researchers all around the world should be put all on a level playing field,” says Arianna Broggiato, a Brussels-based legal adviser for the consultancy eCoast, who co-authored a paper on the concept this year in The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law.

Exceprts from Eli Kintisch U.N. tackles gene prospecting on the high seas, Science, Sept. 7, 2018

The Costs of Stopping Biopiracy

Botanists think there are up to 80,000 wild species of flowering plant left to discover. But a scarcity of funds hampers efforts to collect them. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, ratified by 195 states and the European Union, made things more complicated. It recognised plants as part of countries’ national heritage and outlawed “biopiracy”—profiting from plants without compensating the countries in which they were found.

That made exploiting plants fairer but collecting them harder. Some officials saw a chance to get rich. “Suddenly everyone thought these plants were incredibly valuable,” says Mr Hawtin. Getting permission to go on a collecting trip became nearly impossible. “Anybody could say no to a collecting expedition and very few people could say yes.”

Permits became sine qua non, but in poorer countries the environment ministries that were expected to issue them did not always exist. Collectors might see their applications bounced from one department to another, each unwilling to wield its rubber stamp. “No one wanted to be accused in their local paper of helping the biopirates,” says Mr Hawtin.

Persistent botanists have since earned some governments’ trust. It is now much easier to get approval for expeditions than it was in the 1990s, though often with restrictions on what may be collected. “Things are much better now than they were ten years ago,” says Sandy Knapp, head of the plants division at the Natural History Museum in London. A three-year permit from the Peruvian government allows her to collect specimens of Solanaceae, the family that includes tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines…The Millennium Seed Bank now holds workshops in many countries on collection and conservation techniques. It collaborates on expeditions and produces guidebooks to help locals locate and collect seeds for themselves. Yet some countries persist in imposing self-defeating restrictions. India’s biodiversity law, passed in 2002, makes exporting seeds very difficult and sits poorly with its international obligations. If governments fail to understand the urgency of preserving—and sharing—their biodiversity, there may soon be precious little left to collect.

Excerpts from Botany and bureaucracy: A dying breed, Economist,  Sept. 12, 2015, at 55