‘It’s a thorny issue.’ Why a fight over DNA data imperils a global conservation pact


For conservation biologists, the highest item on the global agenda this year is persuading the world’s nations to agree on new targets for saving nature. National leaders are scheduled to meet in China later this year to finalize a new strategic plan for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a 30-year-old global pact that sets decadal goals for preserving species and ecosystems. Last week, however, negotiators in Geneva reached an impasse. A major stumbling block is how the world should share billions of bits of genetic data stored on computers around the world.

The debate over these data—known as digital sequence information (DSI)—is new, but it echoes a long-standing point of contention. Developing nations that are rich in biodiversity, such as those in the tropics, have argued that more developed nations have exploited their natural heritage for commercial gain—for example, by using plants collected in the tropics to develop new crops or drugs—without sharing any of the revenue or benefits. That irks many parties, because a main objective of the CBD is to use the conservation of biodiversity to promote prosperity by creating “green gold.”

In 2010, CBD nations attempted to address equity concerns by adopting the Nagoya Protocol. It allows nations to create their own permits and processes for allowing outsiders to access their biodiversity, and it requires other signatories to enforce those rules. A related treaty for plants spells out how nations can exchange seeds, in return for sending a portion of any commercial revenues to a multilateral fund.

The Nagoya Protocol, however, did not address how nations should handle the genetic sequences and other genomic data that researchers can extract from organisms and place in digital databases. Developing nations fear such DSI has created a loophole: Companies could make use of organisms without needing to get physical samples, for example by downloading DNA sequences from a publicly available database and using them to engineer bacteria or other organisms. As a result, they would like to see new controls on how DSI can be used and shared.

Many scientists, meanwhile, have a different worry: that imposing new regulations on sharing DSI could hamper research and damage international collaboration in science. The Nagoya Protocol, they argue, has already complicated many kinds of field research while providing few clear benefits. And they fear new DSI rules could make things worse.

For insight into the issue, ScienceInsider spoke with Amber Hartman Scholz, a microbiologist and head of the science policy group at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH. Scholz, who attended the recent Geneva talks, is a founder of the DSI Scientific Network, an ad hoc collaboration that has been advocating for a science-friendly outcome to the DSI negotiations. In February, Scholz and colleagues published a proposal in Nature Communications on how nations can equitably share the benefits of biodiversity genomics without hindering research. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What’s at stake for researchers in the DSI negotiations?

A: The power of being able to understand, through genetic sequence data, how life works at the molecular level really opens up incredible scientific opportunities. We basically have one global, open library of sequence data—the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration. Three identical databases, run by GenBank, the European Nucleotide Archive, and the DNA Data Bank of Japan, deliver data to 750 downstream sequence databases that are then further connected to another 1000 more specialized databases.

Now, some countries are asking for tracking and tracing of all individual sequences in the databases and for conditions that would prohibit open access. This would require tracking billions of data transactions for millions of users. We actually don’t think there’s a technical way to do this. But even if there was, you would spend so much money on the technology and the bureaucracy, you would never be in the black. You’d never be able to reap enough monetary benefits to make the system worth it.

In a worst-case scenario, those databases would be forced through new international law to be closed so that you’d have to pay for access. Or they would not contain all data anymore—they would only contain data from certain countries where access isn’t regulated. If data in the core infrastructure is limited in its reusability, then downstream and interconnected databases get broken. It’s like a domino effect: The whole system becomes more and more splintered. You could have, for example, Brazilian sequence data here and Indonesian data here and all these data islands not part of the open system.

There is a myth that only scientists in developed countries use DSI, and developing countries only provide access to their biodiversity. But scientists in developing countries are often overlooked in this debate. Their use of DSI, their ability to collaborate internationally, is much bigger than previously known and depends on the open, interconnected DSI system. In fact, a closed system for DSI will perversely impact scientists in developing countries the most.

What that means for the science is that our ability to solve global challenges becomes far more hampered. If researchers try to figure out how much genetic diversity is needed to save an endangered bird species in the tropics, they might have to examine sequences mainly from bird species from the global north, because the other information is caught up in databases that are not connected.

Q: How did the negotiations go in Geneva?

A: It’s a thorny issue. There’s been a lot of finger pointing over decades that the promise of “green gold” is not paying out. Now, some negotiating blocks are saying they are not going to agree to new conservation goals unless the issue of benefit sharing from DSI is resolved. This has been said informally for the past few years, but post-Geneva it’s really on the record and in quite an extreme way. DSI is a bargaining chip.

The question becomes: Will politicians agree to shut down public databases or set up paywalls because the countries of the south are saying they’re getting exploited? Or can the scientific community explain the value of open access and provide ideas for benefit sharing that don’t hinge on controlling access to genomic data?

Q: What would a positive outcome look like?

A: The idea we recently proposed is to decouple access from benefit sharing. The open-access system stays more or less unchanged and monetary benefits are collected in a global multilateral fund. This could be funded, for example, by a 1% “biodiversity use fee”—a microcharge on biodiversity-based commercial products that would then be redistributed to pay for biodiversity and conservation projects. The best-case scenario is that the value of an open, interconnected global data set is recognized and perpetuated. For commercial entities, the new thing is that they would have to pay into a global fund, if they meet certain criteria. The details of that would be negotiated in the future.

The other thing that our Nature Communications article puts forth that is completely novel, and a bit wonky, is to give “credit” to countries for providing access to their biodiversity. Understandably, some nations want recognition that their biodiversity is being used; they take national pride in the fact that their biodiversity is important and interesting for science. We suggest that DSI databases report every year how much new sequence data is entered from each nation. Then countries that contribute more to the open system can be rewarded from this multilateral fund. We’re proposing a bonus payment that recognizes and rewards access to their genetic resources. But we don’t need a cryptographic, bureaucratic, expensive tracking and tracing system to do this.

Q: What will happen in China at the final negotiations? Do nations only need to agree on a general framework on DSI, with the details to be worked out later?

A: A number of northern countries are saying they will not agree to a new legally binding treaty for DSI. And some southern countries are saying they will not agree to new conservation targets without a deal on DSI. The unknown is how much political will there might be to get the conservation targets and how much the appetite for compromise on DSI could grow. That will likely be decided on the last night of COP 15 [the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD] at 3 in the morning. That’s why any deal could have a huge impact on researchers, because it boils down to a political horse trade. And horse trades, although a necessary evil for making big deals happen, are usually not shining examples of rational, evidence-based decision-making.

Q: Is there a way to lessen the risk that a midnight deal on DSI would hinder research?

A: The next step is an informal advisory process. The hope is that representatives from member nations will be able to narrow the policy options and exclude those that would be really destructive for science. Ideally, during these meetings, policymakers will thoughtfully weigh how scientists use the databases for the public good and even include scientists and database managers in the process, which was a contentious point during the Geneva discussions. The more scientists—especially scientists working in countries whose negotiators want DSI tracking and tracing or closed access—engage in the process, the better the outcome. We need to continue to explain how and why open access is important to us.

Q: What’s the outlook?

A: My gut feeling is cautiously optimistic. The scientific community is more involved in this decision on DSI than it was, for example, in the development of the Nagoya Protocol. So, I do think that there’s a better chance that we will have an outcome that’s informed by science and compatible with it, too.

The grand irony is that the revolution spurred by genomics and bioinformatics is not only advancing commercial and applied research; it actually serves the process of setting and achieving conservation goals. Genomic-based technology is helping discover new mammal species through the use of eDNA [environmental DNA], for example; it’s bringing species back from the brink of extinction through new measures of genetic diversity and breeding programs; and it’s being used to measure ecosystem health and restoration. To solve some of these really big planetary problems, this same technology—that might get limited and undercut by a bad deal for DSI—is exactly the tool we need in our biodiversity toolkit. That’s why I really hope that the scientific voice gets heard, and I’m optimistic that we’re on the way.

Science, 5 April 2022
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