Digital Sequence Information (DSI)
How do you design an access and benefit sharing (ABS) system that benefits both providers and users of plant genetic resources when efficient and faster crop breeding depends more on access to digital sequence information (DSI), than actual plants or plant parts? Sooner rather than later we are going to have to answer this question. The reason is simple. We are on the cusp of crop breeding depending more on the access to genetic information that underpins plants, than access to actual plants. This is a huge change from the current need to physically have access to plants, or plant parts, to carry out crop breeding research.
What exactly is DSI?
In essence DSI is DNA that has been ‘digitized’. Information contained within a genome -the complete DNA set of an organism- can be translated into a ‘sequence’ of four letters which represent the nucleobases (‘building blocks’ of DNA): adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). These nucleobases are a sort of ‘alphabet’ that when arranged in particular ways, they ‘code’ for different functions and all together, code for an entire organism.
It is not necessary to know the entire genome of an organism to make use of DSI. Knowing and understanding short DSI segments is enough research use or commercial purposes. Being able to digitize genetic information creates opportunities to access, use, edit and store plant genetic resources, which could fundamentally transform crop breeding.
But where does DSI come from?
Genome sequencing is the process of figuring out the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s genome. The DNA of any living organism (and even extinct organisms) can be digitized into DSI.
Genome sequencing has become extremely cheap which has significantly eased access to DSI. In 2017, the cost of sequencing a genome was just over $1,000, down from $100 million in 2001. Understandably, this cost reduction has allowed public and private researchers to sequence the genomes of many plants, animals, fungi and bacteria. Now, segments and even entire genomes can easily be accessed as DSI by anyone with an internet connection. Upon request, some organizations will even custom build a DNA sequence and make it available to the public for free.
For crop breeding, DSI is a true blessing (for example the wheat genome). Currently, our planet is undergoing a growing and affluent population, which not only demand more and higher quality foods, but they are also contributing to the pressures of climate change and the need to reduce environmental impacts. Now more than ever, better use of plant genetic resources is needed to help accelerate solutions. DSI can potentially allow crop breeders access a virtually limitless pool of plant genetic resources in a fast and cheap way. This could mean a major boost for the continued production of crop varieties that are high yielding, and able to withstand climate extremes.
The Issues with Plant DSI
It is this ease of access to DSI where the issues start to come into focus.
Embedded within the DSI of certain plants are intellectual property rights (IPR), plant breeder rights, or traditional knowledge owned (or a combination of these) by certain groups or individuals. In other words, some plants and crops have been deliberately bred with valuable traits into them by someone (or a group), and these plants and crops are granted legal protection because of this. The problem with DSI is that if physical access to plants for breeding is no longer needed, when plant genomes are sequenced, so will the trait information and traditional knowledge, which was previously protected under IPR breeders rights.
Moreover, there is no internationally recognized legal instrument that explicitly states that the plant genomic information or DSI belongs to individuals, groups or countries. Currently, all legal forms of plant protection are built on physical access to plants or plant parts. The only instrument that has some relevance to this issue is the Nagoya Protocol, which is based on the Convention on Biological Diversity. However, the Nagoya Protocol refers to physical access to genetic resources and never explicitly mentions DSI. Thus, some scholars argue that this instrument is obsolete as technology has moved on from physical access to information access.
Interestingly though, the term ‘genetic resource’ is at the base of the DSI debate. There is no universally accepted definition for the term, and this is also a point of lively debate among those involved in these discussions.
What is to be done?
For the most part, DSI is freely available, but soon it will actually be used as a breeding tool to produce things of value. In due time, private and public plant researchers will understand plant DSI enough to begin making improved plant varieties. As a result, a new ‘tool’ has been added to agriculture i.e. the ability to digitize plant and crop genomic information. Coupled with other tools such as ‘genome editing’ offers a much-needed boost of solutions to help cope with climate change and addressing food.
The novelty with DSI lies in that anyone will be able to make use of it.
There is a growing movement of ‘do it yourself biology’ which allows anyone to purchase simple ‘kits’ with which to modify organisms. Other organizations offer instructions on how to synthesize your own medicine at home. While ‘do it yourself biology’ is still very difficult, it is only a matter of time before this movement matures and starts yielding intended (or unintended) results.
However, DSI could go underutilized due to the legal uncertainty surrounding it. The conundrum lies in that plant DSI could be used to address climate change and food security in environmentally sound ways, but plant breeder rights and traditional knowledge of IPRs need to be respected as well. This means that key aspects of international plant DSI governance need to be agreed upon by governments, in order to sidestep this conundrum. But this will take some time.
The four options that the authors of the technical report believe could begin to address the governance challenges are:
- Given the lack of governance capacity, an existing international institution could occupy this space and claim governance. This would require considerable investments, both in terms of time and resources.
- The governance gap could be viewed as a ‘greenfield’ space, allowing an entirely new organization, institution or convention to claim governance. This would be a time consuming and lengthy process.
- Collaboration through existing governance mechanisms could be engaged to reach consensus. This would coalesce existing governance into a new framework that bridges the current gap.
- Let the current status quo continue. Possibly the simplest and most realistic option.
At this point, the path forward is unclear.