Moderation: Susanne Führer

Genetic databases are still freely accessible. Whether so, it will soon be decided. (Imago / Shotshop)

When the global community deliberates on protecting biodiversity in October, life scientists will follow this conference with fascination. Then it will be decided whether access to databases containing genetic information will be restricted.

Biopiracy has been around for a long time, as can be seen with the potato or rubber tree, which originally only existed in the rainforest of Brazil.

“Live rubber plants had to be imported from Brazil in the 19th century to allow the colonial powers to grow them in similar climatic zones,” says Rudolf Amann of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen. “It was a very early form of biopiracy that the living plant needed.”

This is not so easily possible today. The country of origin must be asked to approve whether samples can be taken, and the countries of origin, for example, must share in the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. This is regulated by the so-called Nagoya Protocol, a binding international treaty of 2010.

Each country sequences genomes

But recently, life sciences no longer work with plants, not even with genetic material, but with digital information. The genome of an organism is sequenced, that is to say read. This digital sequence information, DSI, is stored in databases.

“Every country does research. Sequencing is done in every country in the world. And in every country in the world, thousands of scientists are busy every day comparing their newly created sequence, which they have retrieved from a organism, ecosystem or elsewhere. This Comparison of sequences is a generator of knowledge. “

For example, new species are discovered. These CIOs are mainly stored in three large databases – in the United States, the EU and Japan – which exchange data with each other and make it freely available to all researchers.

Databases are freely accessible – always

“Now there is a very valid consideration as to whether the term biopiracy should be extended to digital sequence information,” Amann said. For him, it is quite undisputed that any profit that should be made with this information must be shared fairly.

Basic research should not, however, be restricted. The National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina also called for this in a statement with the participation of Rudolf Amann.

But if access to databases were paid, it would result in a massive reduction. Lay people couldn’t even imagine how much the life sciences are based on being able to compare genes with each other without hindrance.

Plus, says the microbiologist, paying for database access would hit the wrong people:

“Industry in particular could buy access to footage over and over again. A basic researcher in a wealthy country can do that too. But a basic researcher in a developing country has no way of accessing a database. data which is now completely free to purchase. “

You can only protect what you know

The richest countries in biodiversity are found in the tropics, that is, near the equator. The best protection for biodiversity, according to Amann, would be if there were scientists who study biodiversity in these countries, describe it, sequence it and contribute to databases.

Because: “I can only protect what I know.”

The outcome of the follow-up conference on biodiversity in October is still fully open. In Germany, for example, prior political coordination between the different ministries is still ongoing. That is why Leopoldina, as a representative of German science, issued a national recommendation: “Maintain open access to information on digital sequences”.

Protection of biodiversity must be strengthened, says Amann. It requires more money, which could be collected in a fund, for example.

“If we want to protect more space, we have to generate more money. But it should be generated where the profits are made. It means that a tax for patents, for the profits of the pharmaceutical industry is definitely on today’s agenda.”


Rudolf Amann, Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology and Professor of Microbial Ecology at the University of Bremen, is one of the authors of Leopoldina’s national recommendation “Maintain open access to digital information on sequences “.