POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology)
Digital Sequence Information
Evolving life sciences and agricultural research approaches may have a decreasing need to access physical resources in future, such as plant seeds or viral material. Information and genetic data may be all that is required for commercial exploitation of biological resources. This POSTnote summarises the challenge this creates for international discussions on the governance of genetic resources and the possible options for addressing these.
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Use of natural biological resources is core to a range of economic activities, such as plant and animal breeding for agriculture. Before the 1980s, such resources were seen as the common heritage of humankind and available without restriction. This led to issues of equity and fairness as developed countries had greater technological capacity to exploit biological resources than developing countries that are rich in such resources and associated traditional knowledge. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) established genetic resources are under national sovereignty. However, it is one part of international governance of genetic resources, which also includes the 2001 International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (or ‘Plant Treaty’ ), the WHO Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Since 2016, international negotiations on access and benefit sharing have begun to consider how to address the challenges that arise if research methods can substitute use of physical biological material with online genetic data. The CBD have referred to this data as digital sequence information (DSI), and their approach will be influential in informing other frameworks. As yet, there is no internationally agreed definition of DSI; the term was initially intended to be a placeholder until a consensus could be reached on what was being discussed. Organisations representing users of genetic resources have expressed concerns about the effects of including DSI under the CBD framework on research in response to CBD consultations including UK organisations.
Key Points in this POSTnote include:
- Digital sequence information (DSI) refers to the digital biological data in various international negotiations around sharing benefits from the uses of genetic resources.
- A definition has yet to be agreed; it could be restricted to inherited genetic information, or cover all relevant digital biological data and even associated traditional knowledge.
- Millions of sequences are submitted annually to open access and public databases. Tracking their subsequent use would be challenging and could affect research.
- More countries may regulate DSI use domestically if negotiations fail to reach a resolution but, if flawed, an international approach could also hinder research.
POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including
Dr. Sylvain Aubry, Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Zürich*
Professor Nigel Maxted, School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham
Dr Sarah Laird, Co-Director, Plants and People International
Dr Robert Davey, Earlham Institute and DivSeek
Dr Michael Halewood, Head of Policy Unit, Biodiversity International
Anke van den Hurk, Deputy Director, Plantum and Chair of the Sustainable Agriculture Committee of the International Seed Forum
Dr Stuart Smyth, Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation, University of Saskatchewan*
Dr Michelle Rourke, CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Fellow, Griffith University *
Professor Charles Lawson, Griffith Law School, Griffith University
Professor Marcel Jaspars, Marine Biodiscovery Centre, University of Aberdeen*
Professor Abbe Brown, Professor in Intellectual Property, University of Aberdeen*
Manuel Ruiz Miller, Director of the International Affairs and Biodiversity program of the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law*
Professor Margo A. Bagley, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law
Dr. Florian Rabitz, Senior Researcher, Kaunas University of Technology
Dr Amber Scholz, Deputy to the Director, Leibniz-Institut DSMZ German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures*
Dr Chris Lyal, Scientific Associate, The Natural History Museum*
Eric Johnsson, Policy and Public Affairs Manager, UK BioIndustry Association*
Dr Martin Turner, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, UK BioIndustry Association*
Chloe Johnson, Defra*
Katie Beckett, Defra*
John Clorley, Defra*
Samantha Watts, Defra*
Adrian Jones, Defra*
Keith Barber, Defra
Fredrick Rodriguez, Defra
* denotes contributors who reviewed the note at external review
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