TORONTO - In a bid to stop “biopiracy,” researchers are building a giant database to catalog 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 dollars.
Communities living there, however, have rarely benefited from the genetic wealth extracted from their land — a form of theft that legal experts call “biopiracy.”
Instead, forest dwellers often remain impoverished, which can drive them to find other ways to make money, such as illegal logging, according to 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?” said Waughray.
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 will facilitate those payments.
But first those genetic sequences need to be mapped and stored online, which is what the project backers aim to do as early as 2020.
Smartphones and digital payment tools will make it possible for outside investors to directly pay local residents to use genetic material extracted from their land, Waughray said.
Acai berries and Kambo frogs
Spread across nine countries, including Brazil, Colombia and Peru, the Amazon is home to 1 in 10 known species on Earth, according to the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group.
That makes the region vulnerable to biopiracy: 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.
Pharmaceutical companies have also used the yellow-and-green Kambo frog to create anti-inflammatory drugs without distributing benefits to local residents, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency said in 2011.
In India, attempts to patent products such as basmati rice and properties of the spice 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, said Valerie Normand, an official from the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.
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.
Banking on biodiversity
The Amazon Bank of Codes will use blockchain — decentralized digital technology allowing users to track the origins and transfers of information — to catalog specific pieces of genetic material contained in plants and animals.
If a company or researcher wants to use a piece of genetic code for a new medicine, study or product, they can access the bank and see exactly where in the Amazon it came from, said Waughray.
Governments, indigenous groups, non-governmental organizations and others are discussing how the fees paid to use a genetic sequence will be distributed, said Waughray.
Critics worry the project could make it easier for companies to steal genetic material.
“This will become a one-stop shop for digital biopiracy,” said Jim Thomas from the Montreal-based ETC Group, a technology watchdog.
Companies may use the database of genetic codes to go prospecting to find information they need, and then slightly alter it or find another way to avoid paying royalties, he said.
“It used to be companies would send people into the Amazon to gather material,” said Thomas. “Then they would negotiate over whether they would be able to move that material out of the country. Now you won’t even have to leave Toronto to scan the DNA.”
The Amazon Code Bank does not offer a “silver bullet” for combating the theft of genetic resources, Waughray said.
“Mischievous developers” could abuse the program, similar to illicit downloads of artists’ digital music from the internet.
But having a clear set of rules, and a way to track people who violate them, is far better than the status quo where powerful companies can pirate intellectual property from Amazonian communities, he added.
Genetic mapping of the Amazon could also usher in a “fourth industrial revolution,” he said.
Less than 15 percent of the world’s estimated species of plants and land animals have been genetically classified, and less than 0.1 percent have had their DNA thoroughly sequenced, according to the World Economic Forum.
Yet, these small percentages have delivered all modern knowledge about biology and the wealth stemming from it.
Genetically mapping 10 percent of the planet’s species could trigger a wave of innovation based on biotechnology that could change lives all over the world, said Waughray.
For example, he said, Amazonian ants could prove crucial in developing self-driving cars.
“Ants zoom around tropical forests and collect leaves … but there’s never an ant jam or an ant crash.”
The insects move at consistent speeds, and know the distances between one another, based on pheromones, which are chemicals the creatures release into the environment to affect the behavior of others around them.
“That code becomes very valuable when companies are trying to develop self-driving cars,” said Waughray.