Digital Sequence Information on Genetic Resources

Overview

All Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recognize that the use of Digital Sequence Information on Genetic Resources (DSI) contributes significantly to the first two objectives of the CBD, namely supporting conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable use of its components, and that DSI is important for research and development (R&D), especially in fields such as food, agriculture and health. There is, however, significant debate about the implications of the use of DSI for the third objective of the CBD and the objective of the Nagoya Protocol, namely the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.

Here we will present results of the beginning discussion on a definition of DSI, how it impacts the global discussion on ABS specifically and the negotiations of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework in general and the contributions of the ABS Capacity Development Initiative to the international policy- and science-based process aiming at resolving the divergencies around DSI.

First and foremost, it is important to say that there is no common understanding of the topic of Digital Sequence Information (DSI) as there are different interpretations and the term is not commonly used by scientists. It was first introduced into discussions under the CBD and has since then become a placeholder. In this article, the placeholder “DSI” will be used, acknowledging that the terminology needs to be further refined to clarify its concept and scope.

To understand the current debates on the topic of DSI, we first need to look at the principles of life on earth. As many will know from their biology classes, every human body, every animal, every plant and every living being carries an internal construction plan in form of a genetic code called deoxyribonucleic acid, short DNA inside them. Your DNA makes you you – to a certain degree at least.  It has an impact on what we look like, our development growth, reproduction and functions, just like it does for every other living being- 

DNA is just one example of the international discussion on DSI. Other sequential molecules, such as ribonucleic acid (RNA) and proteins (amino acids) are equally as relevant. Even though the scope of DSI is not entirely clear, we know that human genetic resources are excluded from the CBD with a decision that was taken at the 2nd Conference of the Parties (COP 2).

Based on Houssen et al. (2020), Digital Sequence Information on Genetic Resources: Concept, Scope and Current Use, CBD/DSI/AHTEG/2020/1/3

Back in 1984, when the first human genome was sequenced, it took scientists more than 20 years to sequence the information of the human genetic code in a time-consuming and costly process. Science has progressed rapidly since then, and with the progress in sequencing technologies, it is now a lot easier to unravel the genetic information contained in living organisms. The progress of biological science has been embedded in the steady technological developments with the invention and accessibility of the internet, the so called “big data” and advances in computer science in general. These parallel developments enabled a much faster and quicker sequencing, storing and sharing of biological data.

Nowadays, biological researchers from all around the world can quickly and easily access genetic codes via journal repositories and private and public databases, where sequenced information on genetic resources is stored. This means, that it is in many cases no longer necessary to collect a physical specimen and to travel to different countries and regions where the biological resource originates to undertake research at the genetic level. The information stored in databases can be used for many different purposes in biological sciences, e.g. for diagnosing diseases and pests, identifying microorganisms, adapting crops for climate change, food quality control or protecting endangered species and many more. One prominent example of the scientific benefits of DSI is the sharing of a “digital copy” of the Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which enabled researchers from all over the world to start developing vaccines, even before the biological material had reached their shores.

Digital Sequence Information on Genetic Resources

The ABS Initiative produced a short, animated video clip explaining the issue of digital sequence information on genetic resources (DSI) and illustrating its importance for the CBD’s three objectives. It explains the concept of DSI and describes how DSI is being generated, used and stored.

In fact, the sequencing of genetic information became such a common practice in all fields of biological sciences that it led to an enormous amount of information that is being generated and stored every day. One of the main databases for DSI is administered by the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) with an influx of data that is growing faster than the ability to store and process it. The EMBL-EBI not only stores its data, but also exchanges it with two other databanks: the DNA Data Bank in Japan and the GenBank that is hosted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the US. Together they form the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration sharing an open and free access policy.

The large amount of open data mentioned above is mainly used by researchers for non-commercial activities, but private companies also use the data from open-source databases to optimize sequences used for product development. This can be done by searching and comparing thousands of similar sequences and identifying the sequences responsible for the desired traits of a product in development. Companies from mostly developed countries are using information that is accessed via opensource databanks for innovative products and seek intellectual property protection for their sometimes highly profitable inventions, including vaccines, beauty and nutraceutical products. Biodiversity-rich countries that “own” the genetic resource from which the digital sequence information was initially taken from, do not yet profit in terms of benefit sharing agreements that could contribute to the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity, as it is foreseen under the Nagoya Protocol. Therefore, many Parties to the CBD criticize the use of DSI based on the absence of benefit-sharing obligations and the equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of DSI.

Indisputably, the sharing and availability of biological data has many advantages from a research perspective. Therefore, many researchers welcome open-access databanks and argue that DSI has become so important for modern sciences and biotechnological innovations that its use should not be regulated. They fear that breakthrough innovations potentially resulting in societal benefits could be negatively affected. Some also argue that open access to DSI constitutes sufficient benefit-sharing, even though developing countries rich in biodiversity often lack the capacity to use DSI and therefore cannot benefit from it in the same way.  Many developing, and biodiversity-rich countries acknowledge the potential benefits of open access to DSI but argue that these benefits do not justify the exclusion of benefit-sharing obligations. The African Group – a term used to describe the representatives of African countries defending their joint interests - uses patent protected innovations as an example to illustrate their position. Patent protected innovations may benefit society, but patent owners are in control who could use the invention for which purposes and are under no obligations to share benefits with the providing country when financially rewarded by others using their invention.

These are two examples of the divergent positions on DSI that have emerged over the past few years. Up to now, there is still disagreement whether the definition of “genetic resources” in the CBD covers DSI or not, whether DSI should fall under the ABS regime, and whether open access to DSI can be regarded as a sufficient form of benefit-sharing. 

The bilateral ABS mechanism foreseen in the Nagoya Protocol - that currently applies with regard to DSI - occurs when researchers physically collect a genetic resource and sequence its genetic information for R&D. In that case, the providing country could regulate the utilization of DSI in the ABS contract including an agreement with the user on fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. The problem lies in passing these contractual obligations to the next user. Typically, DSI is uploaded into international databases for access by other users, but the databanks do not allow the uploading of accompanying ABS contracts. Even if the databanks would allow this the practice by scientists of downloading hundreds of sequences, complete genomes or other big data sets would it make almost impossible to comply with potentially dozens or hundreds of contracts. Supporters of ensuring benefit-sharing in the global DSI-system therefore favor a multilateral system covering all DSI-databanks.

More information on ABS here

Because there is no international agreement on how DSI should be handled, various national approaches are emerging as countries attempt to address DSI through the bilateral ABS system. The challenges are of different nature. The recent discussions revealed that on the one side, the above-mentioned databanks do not allow the uploading of ABS contracts which could regulate the use of DSI. This policy contradicts the common position of CBD members that the use of DSI can be regulated through ABS contracts. On the other side, the general practice of scientists to use hundreds or more sequences stored in databases for a single R&D project would make compliance with potentially hundreds of bilateral ABS contracts virtually impossible. Therefore, the African Group has suggested a multilateral approach to dealing with DSI and proposed adopting a global benefit-sharing mechanism under Article 10 of the Nagoya Protocol. The latter allows parties the opportunity to potentially introduce “modalities” of a multilateral mechanism to address benefit-sharing in certain situations, such as when genetic resources and the associated traditional knowledge occur in transboundary situations.

All these issues are being dealt with in the context of the Convention for Biological Diversity and other international instruments and processes. At the CBD’s 14th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt in November 2018, key decisions were made on DSI (Decision14/20) and the comprehensive and participatory process for the preparation of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework (Post- 2020 Framework) (Decision 14/34). Decision 14/20 put in place a science- and policy-based process to inform the discussions on DSI. The decision also notes that Parties to the CBD commit to working towards resolving the stated divergencies through this process. DSI has also been plugged into the intersessional activities supporting the development of the Post-2020 Framework.

The process leading up to adoption of the Post 2020-Framework should clarify how the international community will deal with the issue of DSI. A crucial question that will need to be answered will be how the Post-2020 Framework can address the three objectives of the CBD in a balanced way. There will also be further discussion on how to integrate access and benefits-sharing into DSI.

Many developing countries have indicated that they will not support the adoption of a Post-2020 Framework that does not contain a benefit-sharing solution for DSI. There is a lot at stake for everyone involved in the negotiation process.

Further Information

Guidance on DSI and ABS

Global DSI Dialogues

After a series of webinars (two Global and regional webinars based on time zones of Asia/Pacific, Africa/Europe and the Americas) we finished with a reflection webinar, where areas of convergence and divergence were identified and points of further consideration were presented and discussed.

Find below the recordings of the webinar in French and Spanish: 

 

The 1st Global DSI Dialogue organized by the ABS Initiative offered a forum for open exchange reflecting about scientific, technical and policy issues. Participants were informed about the general patterns in production, storage and use of DSI by three international experts. Furthermore, the Secretariat of the CBD and five other international organisations presented on the current state of discussions on DSI in the respective fora. The main outcomes of the dialogue were: – Five options for sharing benefits arising from the (commercial) use of DSI; – A list of points for consideration with regards to analysing and evaluating benefit-sharing options for the utilisation of DSI;

Here are the reports of the 1st and 2nd Global DSI Dialogue (2019 and 2021): 

Policy Webinar on Digital Sequence Information (DSI)

In collaboration with the ABS Initiative, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity offered a global webinar series and online discussion forum to share information related to DSI.

This series is informal and not part of the formal process.  It is organized by the co-chairs of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework with the support of the Secretariat to facilitate broader understanding and exchange of ideas among parties and stakeholders. 

This webinar series aims to foster a common understanding of DSI and its importance and linkages to:

This webinar series is open to everyone interested in understanding how DSI is being addressed under the CBD, in preparation for the third meeting of the Open-ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

 

Webinar 1: Understanding DSI - This webinar focused on the exchange of technical information regarding DSI. It did not serve as a platform for negotiations, or understanding different views or questions related to the scope of DSI or regulatory options.

Click on the link below for the French version of the webinar.

    

Webinar 2: DSI under  the CBD - Process and recent outcomes related to digital sequence information on genetic resources under the CBD.

 

Webinar 3: Policy Options for ABS and DSI - This webinar presented different policy options for access and benefit-sharing and digital sequence information on genetic resources emerging from various studies and dialogues, being proposed by different actors and stakeholders.

 

Webinar4: Reflection on the co-chairs panel - At CBD COP 14, Parties committed to working towards resolving their divergence of views regarding benefit- sharing from the use of DSI on genetic resources. To broaden and deepen the science- and policy-based process around this topic, the ABS Capacity Development Initiative has organized a reflection webinar on 24 March 2021 to discuss potential criteria for assessing DSI policy options, among other topics.

Click on the links below for the French and Spanish version of the webinar

Synthesis report of the webinar: 

Technical Webinars on DSI

This series of webinars focuses on technical aspects of digital sequence information (DSI) and aims to support the science-policy process agreed at CBD CoP 14.

 

Webinar 1: The Role of IPLCs and associated traditional knowledge in the DSI debate - The objective of this technical DSI webinar was to make everyone aware of how key DSI issues are relevant for and affect indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and traditional knowledge. The current science- and policy-based process on DSI under the CBD did not yet specifically address this important topic.

Click on the link below for the French recording of the webinar: 

Webinar report:

Presentations of the webinar:

    

Webinar 2: Assessing capacity development needs for the use of DSI - The general importance of developing additional technical, human and institutional capacity, especially in developing countries, to generate and use digital sequence information is widely acknowledged in the discussions around DSI. But what would this mean in practice? Who will provide it, who will receive it, who will pay for it? How does this relate to wider capacity development and technology transfer measures under the CBD and its Protocols? And what role can capacity development play in sharing the benefits arising from the use of DSI? All these questoins are addressed in the webinar recorded above. 

Click on the link below for the French recording of the webinar:

Webinar report:

Presentations of the webinar:

 

 

Webinar 3: Contribution of DSI in the  development of commercial applications - One of the key topics in the international discussions around DSI is sharing the benefits of commercial utilization and products based on DSI. To increase common understanding the webinar looked at ways in which DSI is accessed and used for commercial purposes, discussed the intellectual property aspects of commercial DSI use, and examined potential benefit sharing options for specific examples of products using DSI.

Click on the link below for the French version of the webinar.

Presentations of the webinar:

   

Webinar 4: Webinar on the interplay between Open Science, open access to data, database terms and conditions, and potential options for tracking and tracing

The first formal discussions on DSI in the context of the Post2020 Global Biodiversity Framework took place at OEWG 3.1 and will be continued by the Co-chairs’ Informal Advisory Group on DSI (DSI IAG) before the face-to-face negotiations planned for Geneva in January 2022. At this stage one of the main divergences appears to be between those who value open access to DSI above all else, and those who believe that ensuring benefit sharing from the use of DSI would require terms and conditions (T&Cs) and/or tracking and tracing of DSI use (e.g. through metadata tags identifying the provider country and/or IPLCs holding aTK). To resolve this divergence, this webinar serves as a factual and open exchange of views on the feasibility, practicalities, costs, benefits and legal implications of following either of these approaches, including whether and where a possible middle ground could be found.

Click on the link below for the French recording of the webinar: