The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recognized the rights of nations over their ecosystems’ diversity, which comprises all non-human living creatures. The treaty indicates the idea that governments with huge biodiversity give suitable genetic resources.
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Researchers can use these sources and further share the study findings with the origin country. However, other aspects, such as training and technology transfer, might also help the nation of origin. Lastly, everything comes down to “access and benefit sharing.”
Currently, the contractual parties are debating whether to limit free access to digital sequence information (DSI) and create a monetary benefit sharing system for sequence data use. Science organizations like the Leopoldina oppose this. Instead, they argue for uninterrupted open data access while continuing to support benefit-sharing principles.
An international study team headed by the IPK and the DSMZ has now analyzed how and according to which patterns access to and use of this data has occurred so far. The current study took place during the critical period of international negotiations, which will continue in China in the summer of 2022. It can be concluded that this simplistic notion of an exclusive provider-user relationship is found to be totally inadequate.
The simple idea that biodiverse nations give access only to genetic resources and that research only consumes and adds value to this data in wealthy countries is no longer valid.
Our data point to a much more complex flow of information for digital sequence information. Many people think it’s like a one-way street. But that’s wrong. It’s a kind of traffic-circle with entrances and exits.”
Dr Amber Hartman Scholz, Study Lead Author, Leibniz Institute DSMZ
“The use of DSI by scientists in the countries of origin is much stronger than we expected. We estimate it is precisely this open DSI ecosystem that leads to DSI being used more than thought in countries with a rather low GDP. Therefore, all policy decisions should aim to preserve open access to these important commons,” added the DSMZ researcher.
The European Nucleotide Archive, among other sites, collects and archives nucleotide sequencing data. Researchers from the IPK Leibniz Institute analyzed 263 million data sets from the collection and examined two problems: Which country supplied the biological samples for the sequencing? And, which scientists from which countries have further used this sequencing data in their research? An interactive Web-Portal to monitor the use of DSI is the result of this research.
“New discoveries in the life sciences rely on open data. Researchers all over the world depend on the seamless flow of sequence data to find solutions for global challenges, from biodiversity to agriculture and human health,” states Dr. Matthias Lange from the “Bioinformatic and Information Technology” research group at IPK and Dr. Guy Cochrane, Head of the European Nucleotide Archive at EMBL–EBI.
The researchers added, “These studies show that reducing the flow of data will be damaging for everyone.”
Dr. Matthias Lange is also the lead author of the second study.
Dr. Amber Hartman Scholz, Dr. Guy Cochrane, and Dr. Matthias Lange have joined hands to encourage policymakers to keep digital sequence information free in the future. “If free access were to be restricted, it would make global scientific progress much more difficult,” they both warn, pointing to studies on Covid-19 vaccines.
“Certainly, science would not be as far along today as it is if researchers had had to pay for access to SARS CoV-2 sequence data and it were restricted,” concluded the researchers.
Scholz, A. H., et al. (2021) Myth-busting the provider-user relationship for digital sequence information. GigaScience. doi.org/10.1093/gigascience/giab085.