Colombia takes steps to preserve its biodiversity via genomic studies

Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) predict that the second-most diverse nation in the world will benefit ecologically, economically, and socially from joining the Earth Biogenome Project.

The Earth Biogenome Project (EBP) is a global initiative to sequence the genomes of all eukaryotic (plant, animal, and fungi) life on Earth. Colombia joined the project in 2019. In a collaborative effort between governments, academia, and the private sector, Colombia’s post-conflict bio-economy will be developed with sustainable and environment-focused strategies while preserving its cultural and biological diversity.

Several factors have helped in preserving Colombia’s biodiversity, as much of it is still inaccessible, understudied, and undisturbed. Nevertheless, the country has begun opening up to economic activities such as timber, mining, and agriculture—specifically cattle farming—since the 2016 Peace Agreement was signed. However, these activities threaten Colombia’s ecosystems and worsen biodiversity loss.

Joining the EBP and launching the National Bioeconomy Strategy (NBS) would boost Colombia’s biodiversity, address poverty and inequality, and even uncover new species that might benefit human health. The research team says this would result in a wide range of positive outcomes.

Dr Joseph Huddart, a Senior Research Associate in UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, was the lead author of the study. The paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

We are at the beginning of an exciting new era of molecular research, where technological advances mean we can potentially sequence species DNA in the field cost-effectively and in real-time.”

Dr Joseph Huddart, Study Lead Author and Senior Research Associate, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

Through equitable, capacity-building partnerships with local institutions, this is set to both disrupt and democratize the outdated colonial model of scientific exploration where biological material is exported out of mega diverse countries like Colombia to richer countries for analysis,” he says.

Colombia’s NBS is a long-term, post-conflict bio-economic development plan designed to evaluate, conserve, manage, and sustainably utilize Colombia’s natural resources.

Prof. Federica Di Palma, a Professorial Fellow in Biodiversity in UEA’s School of Biological Sciences and an Honorary Professor in the Norwich Medical School, guides the EBP-Colombia consortium with Prof. Silvia Restrepo at the University of Los Andes, Colombia.

Colombia has enormous and internationally important untapped genomic wealth. By establishing a collaborative community to develop Colombia’s molecular research capacity and creating a bioeconomy, we can work toward sustainable management and conservation.”

Federica Di Palma, Professorial Fellow in Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

In accordance with the EBP’s mission, a complete DNA sequence catalog is to be generated for all 1.8 million named species of plants, animals, and fungi, as well as single-celled eukaryotes; and thus, Colombia is well-positioned to make extraordinary contributions, such as advancing the understanding of its cacao and endangered species, such as the Andean bear.

As a result, the sequencing could lead to the discovery of novel molecules, fibers, and proteins that might have industrial and health applications, as well as food and nutritional security.

Colombian stakeholders collaborated with EBP-Colombia to develop molecular research capacity, as well as drive political support for the project by training future generations of scientists, Colombian genomicists, conservationists, and technicians.

Prof. Di Palma anticipates that these strategies will ultimately contribute to reducing poverty, inequality, and conflict, while also promoting peace. While addressing societal, environmental and economic challenges, the plans promote innovative approaches in agriculture, tourism, recycling, medicine, and more.

The NBS and the EBP can also serve as alternative models for economic development that similarly placed countries can adopt.”

Federica Di Palma, Professorial Fellow in Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

EBP currently has 5,000 members at 44 member institutions in 22 countries across every continent except Antarctica. With 49 affiliated projects covering nearly all major taxonomic groups of eukaryotes, the center has access to thousands of premium samples from museum collections and field biologists.

Without action to curb climate change and protect the health of global ecosystems, the planet is predicted to lose 50% of its biodiversity by the end of this century. By creating a digital library of DNA sequences for all known eukaryotic species, effective tools can be developed for preventing biodiversity loss and pathogen spreading, analyzing and protecting ecosystems, and improving ecology services.

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