Digital Sequence Information (DSI), a term used in policy circles to refer broadly to genetic sequence data and potentially other linked data, has emerged as a contentious issue among Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and in other international policy fora. Policy outcomes could have far-reaching implications for research, the bioeconomy and biodiversity conservation for decades to come. To this end, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has funded an interdisciplinary project called “Wissenschaftsbasierte Lösungsansätze für Digitale Sequenzinformation (WiLDSI)” or, in English, “Science-based approaches for digital sequence information”. This interdisciplinary project, led by the Leibniz Institutes DSMZ and IPK Gatersleben, on behalf of the Leibniz Association, is researching DSI policy options and implications ahead of the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the CBD. In the first phase of this project, we identified policy approaches that protect the sequencing community’s tradition of open sharing, support global research innovation, and enable fair, sustainable benefit sharing for the countries of origin. Phase two of this project is currently underway.
Publication of the IPBES Report on May 6, 2019 galvanized international concern about human-induced biodiversity loss and species extinctions. This report and other science-based assessments form the basis for the negotiations of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), which will serve for the next 10 years as the basis for action on the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Negotiations on this framework are expected to be held in mid-2022. In order to be able to successfully negotiate the GBF, compromises are expected from all involved parties.
Digital sequence information (DSI) from genetic resources has emerged as a key issue in these negotiations. The contents of public sequence databases are growing exponentially and countries of origin fear that direct access to the increasing amount of freely available sequence information undermines the sharing of benefits for genetic resources. At the same time, DSI and its free accessibility are essential for all areas of the life sciences, including biodiversity research, food security, human health and much more. Some proposed policy solutions are at odds with the traditions of open sharing that define DSI research, and have therefore raised serious concern across the international scientific community. For more information on the history of open access to DSI and its implications for policy development, see this detailed report commissioned by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation.
“Digital sequence information (DSI)” refers broadly to genetic sequence data and potentially other linked and associated data. The exact scope of this term has been intentionally left vague (e.g. whether protein sequence or metabolite information might be included), to give space to divergent opinions while policy solutions are being developed. For more information on the potential scope of this term see the CBD technical expert report from 2020.
Our results show that open access to DSI is essential for research, especially in emerging and developing countries and documents the value of DSI and international collaboration with scientists in less-industrialized countries. To achieve this, existing models from other sectors (databases, financing, international law, development policy) will be used to learn and identify how these separate building blocks can be put together. To this end, database, legal, scientific and finance experts were selected to investigate and research viable solutions for DSI that preserve open access but at the same time enable monetary benefit sharing. These experts form the core members of the WiLDSI project steering group. A list of the current steering group members is available here.
The DSI Scientific Network was created in 2020 to help give the global scientific community a voice in ongoing DSI policy negotiations. The Network brings together experts in their individual capacity, to help share information about how DSI is used and ensure that the framework developed to govern access and benefit sharing for DSI does not compromise scientific research and disadvantage scientists worldwide, in particular those with less financial resources. More information on the newly founded DSI Scientific Network can be accessed here.
Phase 2 Project Goals (July 2021 - Dec 2022)
The WiLDSI project received further funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), which will extend its work through the end of 2022. Current goals include:
I) Performing an economic analysis of available policy options for DSI, and exploring the feasibility of blockchain-based policy solutions.
II) Further exploring multilateral solutions for ABS and DSI, including investigating the implications and benefits of open access to DSI and documenting potential avenues for capacity building.
III) New improvements to the WiLDSI Data Portal that will allow continuous updates and filtering for different species groups or time periods.
Phase 1 Project Outputs (Sept 2019 - July 2021)
I) Two peer-reviewed publications exploring global patterns of sequence generation and use.
a. Amber Hartman Scholz, Matthias Lange, Pia Habekost, Paul Oldham, Ibon Cancio, Guy Cochrane, Jens Freitag. Myth-busting the provider-user relationship for digital sequence information. GigaScience, December 2021, doi.org/10.1093/gigascience/giab085
b. Matthias Lange, Blaise T F Alako, Guy Cochrane, Mehmood Ghaffar, Martin Mascher, Pia-Katharina Habekost, Upneet Hillebrand, Uwe Scholz, Florian Schorch, Jens Freitag, Amber Hartman Scholz. Quantitative monitoring of nucleotide sequence data from genetic resources in context of their citation in the scientific literature. GigaScience, December 2021, doi.org/10.1093/gigascience/giab084
The WiLDSI project organized several workshops to involve the scientific stakeholder community in Germany as well as the European stakeholder community – academia as well as industry – in the policy discussions surrounding DSI. The objective of these workshops is to engage the scientific community and develop interdisciplinary and fair solutions for all concerned in advance of the upcoming negotiations to COP15.