Biodiversity, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Barcoding Biodiversity Not Free of Risks, Activists Say

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Jul 28 2011 (IPS) - As the Barcode of Life project continues the work of sequencing specific segments of genes in Mexican animals and plants, there are some concerns about how to safeguard the biological samples collected from the threat of commercial exploitation.

Supporters of the initiative argue that the information gathered can lead to the discovery of new varieties, and to better protection of biodiversity. But critics say the big pharmaceutical and synthetic biology companies, which produce organisms with specific functions through genetic engineering, could exploit the data in the service of their own economic interests.

“The barcoding project is helping to document the country’s biodiversity, so that better conservation management plans can be designed. If we don’t know what species exist, we won’t know what to protect,” researcher Lidia Cabrera of the Biology Institute at the state National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who is also on the thematic network committee of Barcode of Life in Mexico (MexBOL), told IPS.

The initiative is being undertaken by a conglomerate of academic institutions, created in 2009 and made up of the UNAM Biology Institute, the state-run Southern Border College (ECOSUR) and the Northwest Biological Research Centre, as well as the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO).

Mexico, one of the five most biodiverse countries in the world, is home to 108,519 species, including 72,327 animals, 29,192 plants, and 7,000 fungi. But less than one percent have been “barcoded”.

Barcoding is a method that isolates and amplifies a short, specific stretch of an organism’s DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, that is unique to the species it belongs to, and can be used to identify, document and catalogue living organisms.

“Fast, reliable species identification will revolutionise our concept of our natural surroundings, and the sciences that study it: ecology, taxonomy, and so on,” Manuel Elías, an expert at ECOSUR and a member of the network, told IPS.

The project has already produced barcode sequences for about 20 percent of fish species, 70 percent of birds and close to 10 percent of plant species. Mexican scientists barcoded 6,000 samples in 2010.

The international Barcode of Life project was launched in 2003 by the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph, in Canada. The following year, a consortium for the project was created, made up of organisations from 43 countries. Mexico joined in 2009.

The international database already contains 1.2 million barcodes of specimens from 101,750 species, and the goal is to sequence and store the barcodes of at least half a million species by 2015.

“The basic problem is that although it is presented as simply scientific research, the barcode initiative is classifying a large number of organisms that are of interest to transnational corporations, like pharmaceutical companies and synthetic biology firms,” said Silvia Ribeiro, the Latin America head of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC).

“There are no safeguards whatsoever that apply to this area,” she complained to IPS.

She was referring to the fact that the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity lacks any regulations about artificial creations based on biological materials.

This area is covered by the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation, an appendix to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which was signed by 116 governments in October 2010 in the Japanese city of Nagoya. It will come into effect as soon as it has been ratified by 50 countries.

The protocol, which was signed by Mexico in February, seeks to protect genetic resources and traditional knowledge about them, share the benefits arising from their use, and prevent biopiracy (theft and privatisation of traditional, collectively-owned indigenous knowledge and resources in order to profit from biodiversity).

Collecting genetic material has controversial precedents in this Latin American country. In 1997, ECOSUR, the University of Georgia at Athens (UGA) in the United States, and Molecular Nature, a biotechnology company based in Wales, launched the International Collaborative Biodiversity Group – Drug Discovery and Biodiversity Among the Maya in Mexico Project (ICBG-Maya), in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

The manifest goal of the project was to discover natural products with medicinal properties, conserve biodiversity and encourage sustainable economic growth. But it was cancelled in 2000, after indigenous and social organisations protested that it was a loophole for biopiracy and commercial exploitation of biological materials.

Protests erupted when some 7,000 samples were sent to the University of Georgia in the United States, a country that is not a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity and is unlikely to sign the Nagoya Protocol, leaving its companies free to sell and profit from the genetic materials.

The same risk is a latent possibility in the MexBOL project, although the Smithsonian Institution, which developed the international Consortium for Barcode of Life, is dedicated to scientific research. Nonetheless, the biological samples collected in Mexico are sent to the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (University of Guelph, Canada).

The MexBOL work programme indicates that its database will be available in the public domain as a reference for the rapid identification of species from different biological groups, particularly those of strategic, economic, commercial importance to Mexico, or ones that pose a risk.

The network’s goal is to develop the capability to generate 10,000 sequences a year in the first year of operation, then gradually increase the rate to reach a projected 50,000 sequences a year from its third year of operations.

In debates about the project, researchers agreed that the data belong to the study initiator, and should remain public until the author decides otherwise, which is what usually happens when research work is published in a scientific journal.

“As the barcode sequence represents such a small fragment of DNA, it is technically impossible to use it to engineer transgenic organisms,” stressed UNAM’s Cabrera. “Knowledge of the plant and the conditions it requires for growth would be needed. An important point is that none of this can be patented for species in the wild,” she said.

ECOSUR’s Elías concurred. “I don’t see how a fragment of gene sequence can be used for commercial purposes by the big companies. The barcode sequences do not encode any active principle, or anything that can be used for profit motives,” he said.

Every barcode sequence is tagged with a geographical reference indicating the precise location of the habitat of the species concerned.

But the ETC’s Ribeiro disagreed with Cabrera and Elías. “The information is available, and there are no safeguards against patenting it after making some genetic modification. The sequences are geo-referenced and make it easy to find similar organisms. Active ingredients can be isolated from a small sample,” she countered.

There are more than 8,000 genomic sequencing projects being carried out on known species worldwide, and the progress of this work will be reviewed at the Fourth International Barcode of Life Conference, to be held in November in Adelaide, Australia.

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