The World Economic Forum announced Tuesday an ambitious partnership to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth and create an inclusive bio-economy, as part of its Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth Initiative.
The Earth Bio-Genome Project (EBP) will sequence all the plants, animals and single-cell organisms on Earth – the eukaryotic species – now possible due to the exponential drop in costs of genomic sequencing.
Meanwhile, the Earth Bank of Codes (EBC) aims to make nature’s biological and biomimetic assets accessible to innovators around the world, while tackling bio-piracy and ensuring equitable sharing of the commercial benefits.
The announcement follows warnings by scientists in a paper last year that a “sixth mass extinction” is under way in which 20,000 species are in danger – a “biological annihilation” that represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.”
The EBC part of the partnership will boost the economic incentives for local communities and global businesses to preserve the environment. It aims to unlock the potential of the planet’s biodiversity and boost the global marketplace for bio-inspired chemicals, materials, processes and innovations that solve human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested strategies.
Such advances include harvesting the next generation of antibiotics from Amazonian frogs to combat the antimicrobial resistance threat, and pioneering self-driving car algorithms using inspiration from Amazonian ants.
Only 14% of the estimated species of plants and land animals have been classified and less than 0.1% have had their DNA thoroughly sequenced, meaning there is a huge gap in our knowledge of the vast scientific, economic, social and environmental potential of our biodiversity.
Yet, this tiny percentage has delivered all of our modern knowledge of biology and the life sciences.
Like the Human Genome Project, which delivered at least $65 to the US economy for every public dollar spent as well as myriad benefits for human health, molecular medicine and scientific understanding, the EBP aims to create an inclusive bio-economy and enable the conservation and regeneration of biodiversity.
“The rate of biodiversity loss is sobering. Those born since 2012 have inherited a planet with fewer than half the number of animals on land and below water than those born before 1970. There is an urgent need for innovations that can quickly make natural habitats worth more intact for local people than cutting them down for other land uses. The Fourth Industrial Revolution in biology could offer such innovations if linked to new models for biodiversity management. This is why this partnership could be very exciting,” said Dominic Waughray, Head of Public-Private Partnership and Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum.
The partnership will take 10 years and cost an estimated $4.7 billion – now possible due to the drop in costs of genomic sequencing. The Human Genome Project, by comparison, took more than a decade and cost $4.8 billion in 2017 to sequence the first human genome.
Putting the plan into action
The EBC will work by providing an open, global, public-good and digital platform that registers and maps the biological IP assets on the blockchain. This code bank will record the provenance, rights and obligations associated with nature’s assets – their intellectual property – to track their provenance and use. When value is created from accessing these assets, smart contracts would facilitate equitable sharing of benefits to the custodians of nature and to the bio-diverse nations of origin.
An important proof of concept for the EBP and EBC will be located in the Amazon basin in light of its rich biodiversity.
The pilot – known as the Amazon Bank of Codes – can be seen as an initiative that offers practical means to indigenous and traditional communities and local actors in the Amazon basin, and the Convention on Biodiversity at the international level, to eliminate bio-piracy. Bio-innovators in the Amazon and worldwide would tap into a store of data that accelerates the likelihood of scientific breakthroughs with a one-stop shop for nature’s assets. A fair share of the economic value created from such breakthroughs would automatically be returned to the custodians of the various components of nature’s assets in the Amazon.
For indigenous and local communities, the value could be immense. At the same time, it helps shift local incentives away from short-term forest clearance towards longer-term preservation.
This platform would help support national regulators in the Amazon and implement the fair and equitable sharing of benefits as intended by the 2017 Nagoya Protocol, which governs access to genetic resources.
Following this proof of concept, the EBC, in partnership with the EBP, would facilitate a similar approach in other areas rich in biodiversity on land and in the oceans.
The World Economic Forum System Initiative on Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security will offer its platform and networks to help advance the development of the EBC as a discrete project in its wider partnership with the EBP. This will form an associated workstream of the System Initiative’s Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth Initiative. By providing a platform for the partnership between the EBP and the EBC, the World Economic Forum’s Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth Initiative will enable experts from across the public, private and research sectors to work together on developing guidelines that maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks to society from such an innovation.
“Scientists and entrepreneurs are now able to tap into a new source of knowledge that could be the driver behind the next generation of novel technologies. If the dividends are shared equitably, an inclusive bio-economy could be created that provides a significant new funding stream for conservation and sustainable development efforts centred on the custodians of nature,” said Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, Founder and Chairman of Space Time Ventures, Founder of the Earth Bank of Codes and member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on the Environment and Natural Resource Security.
“The partnership will construct a global biology infrastructure project to sequence life on the planet to enable solutions for preserving Earth’s biodiversity, managing ecosystems, spawning bio-based industries and sustaining human societies,” said Harris Lewin, Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology, Robert and Rosabel Osborne Endowed Chair, University of California, Davis, member of the United States National Academy of Science and Chair of the Earth BioGenome Project.
There is still work to be done. For example, the additional $4.7 billion needed for ongoing scientific research has still to be raised. Also, the regulatory framework, governance and data-sharing principles and protocols will need to be developed alongside the research to ensure that the risks to society are minimized, the opportunities for societal benefit are maximized, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits is operationalized.
To address these challenges, the partnership will rely on convening multistakeholder collaborations that draw in science, research, technology and ethics communities, along with governments and the private sector.
The goals of the EBP are supported by some of the world’s leading universities and research centres, in addition to the Smithsonian Institution in the United States, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) in Shenzhen, China, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Royal Botanical Gardens in the United Kingdom, the FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation) in Brazil and the Department of Agriculture in the United States – and the list of partners is expanding. The EBP is working closely with the Global Genome Biodiversity Network, the Earth Bank of Codes and a number of biotech and innovation start-ups.
The World Economic Forum’s 48th Annual Meeting is taking place on January 23-26, 2018 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland.