Earth BioGenome Project

Davos: launch of the Bank of the Living. Towards a monopolisation of life by the economy?

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The announcement that has just been made on the occasion of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, could take on a historic dimension impacting the whole of humanity. It is nothing less than the sequencing of the genome of everything that lives on Earth, and the storage of its codes in a bank guaranteeing ownership, origin and marketing. The codes of life will thus be made available not only to researchers but also to industrialists and laboratories to enable them to concoct an unprecedented mass of bio-innovations. A "fourth industrial revolution" that begins with a ten-year plan, financed to the tune of more than 4 billion dollars. Where does this measure come from? Who are the carriers? What are its avowed and hidden intentions? What are the stakes and consequences? Deciphering.
 
Tt all began with a quiet meeting in November 2015 at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Twenty-three of the greatest specialists in contemporary biology are fomenting an oversized project.
 

Birth of an idea

They decide to collect DNA sequences from specimens of all the complex life on Earth. The project is immediately christened Earth BioGenome Project (EBP). It has already been twelve years since the complete genetic sequence of Homo sapiens was published. The genomes of other organisms had been deciphered in the meantime, but the projects that were part of this process seemed fragmentary in the eyes of the twenty-three biologists. Some were predictable and ad hoc, involving chickens, honeybees or rice. Others were more ambitious, such as sampling the biodiversity of vertebrates, insects and arachnids by observing representatives of several thousand genera. But this work progressed only slowly. The committee concluded that what was needed was a large-scale project, similar to the human genome, but on a global scale to survey all life on Earth.
 
Around the same time, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a particularly daring entrepreneur of Peruvian origin was maturing a crazy idea. Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio observes that the extractive, forestry and livestock industries have literally plundered the Amazon basin. This means that if the Amazon ecosystem is so coveted, it is because it is exceptionally rich. So why not base an economy on the exploitation of the region's living organisms and the biological information they contain? The rubber plantation companies that produced the rubber, the pharmaceutical laboratories that made hypertensive drugs from the venom of Amazonian snakes, all created industries worth billions of dollars. What Juan Castilla sees is that the current explosion of biological knowledge should lead to many more such opportunities, and make a lot of money. But in the heart of Castilla, there is a humanist fibre. He would like those who live in the Amazon basin to be able to share in the benefits of this colossal manna and not be excluded from it, as was the case with the rubber tree. Our Peruvian visionary is not the only one to think this way. An international agreement, which came into force in 2014, the Nagoya ProtocolThe Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), already gives legal rights to the country of origin of exploited biological material. But what Castilla observes is that regulations to enforce these rights can hinder the research needed to turn knowledge into profit. He is therefore developing the project to create an open library of Amazon biological data (especially DNA sequences) in a way that also makes it possible to find out who does what with this data and to automatically distribute to the country of origin a portion of any commercial value that might result from these activities. He calls his idea the Amazon Bank of Codesthe Amazonian Bank of Codes.
 
The two ideas, those of the Washington biologists and that of Juan Castilla, will converge to lead to an partnership presented on January 23rd under the auspices, it is not insignificant, of the World Economic Forum from Davos.
 

An industrial-scale project

The stated objective of the project is to sequence, within a decade, the genomes of all known eukaryotic species. These include complex organisms such as plants, animals, fungi and a range of single-celled organisms, protists. For the time being, prokaryotes composed of bacteria and the archaea group are not included. In total, it is 1.5 million different species whose genome will be sequenced. The schedule is ambitious with a rapid increase in power: 8 genomes sequenced per day, then 140, then about a thousand. To achieve this, a large number of sequencing machines will be purchased and armies of technicians will be hired to run the sequencers. A budget of more than $4.7 billion is proposed to complete the project.
 
In an interview with The EconomistHarris Lewin, a genomist at the University of California, who is co-developing the project, estimates that retrieving genetic data from an as yet unexamined species will cost between 40,000 and 60,000 $ for labour, not including reagents and depreciation of machinery costs. Large sequencing centres will be involved in the project; this is the case of the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) in Shenzhen, China, the Genomics Resource Centre of the Rockefeller University in America, the Sanger Institute in Britain, as well as a host of small university sequencers such as the Smithsonian Institute...all eager to get their piece of the pie. Startups aren't forgotten like the Californian one. Complete Genomicwhich claims to be able to lower the cost of sequencing to 100 $.
 
The complicated part of the project is likely to be the collection of the necessary specimens. Some of them, estimated at 500,000 units, will come from botanical gardens, zoos or herbaria held by many institutions around the world. But the rest will have to be collected in the field. The promoters of the project believe that this will be an opportunity to implement innovative techniques such as autonomous drones, for example, but also to use crowdsourcing by involving citizen sample hunters. However, the hardest part will be obtaining permission from each state whose territory will be sampled. This can quickly turn into a bureaucratic nightmare. A nightmare mitigated by the presence in the project of Juan Castilla, who, with his idea of returning part of the dividends generated by the exploitation of this living heritage to the original populations, serves as a token of good intentions.
 

Digitization of living organisms and blockchain

The sequencing of life consists, no more and no less, of digitizing the planet's biological resources. Preserving a material object in the form of a digital code is perfectly trivial today. We do it every day, and exchange, sell or buy a lot of so-called immaterial goods. The aim of the project is indeed to conserve, in code form, the DNA sequences of a living organism. From then on, anything is possible. With one click, we will be able to transfer the genetic heritage of a species from one end of the planet to the other. As this is a digitized code, it will be possible to equip it with metatags to identify it, associate its source and its property.
The promoters of the project plan to build a database of genetic information using the blockchain technique. This tool is widely used in the field of cryptomoney, such as Bitcoin, to accurately identify all the transactions carried out and pay the actors in the process their fair share. More specifically, these technologies are used to create "smart contracts" that monitor orders and execute themselves.
Access to the genetic code bank would then be equivalent to signing a digital contract enabling all subsequent uses of the knowledge obtained to be tracked. If such use were commercial, it would be possible to transfer an automatic payment to the designated owners of the data used.
This type of contract based on the block chain would inevitably reassure governments against biopiracy and the plundering of the natural resources of the countries concerned.
 

Good intentions?

The project that was presented in Davos yesterday is, on the surface, full of good intentions. Harris Lewin, Professor Emeritus of Evolution and Ecology, Robert and Rosabel Osborne Chair at the University of California, Fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Science, and President of the Earth BioGenome Project...says, hand on heart: " The partnership will build a global biological infrastructure project to sequence life on the planet in order to implement solutions to preserve the Earth's biodiversity, manage ecosystems, design bio-industrial activities and support human societies. ». Big words that evoke both the protection of biodiversity on Earth and the emergence of a bio-industry, described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
 
His colleague, Juan Castilla is more concrete; he claims: " The fourth industrial revolution has the transformational power to unlock previously unattainable economic value by decoding nature's DNA and learning from its function and processes. ». He goes on to say: « Scientists and entrepreneurs are now able to tap into a new source of knowledge that could drive the next generation of new technologies.. »
Clearly, the intention - and the intent - is to make this biological data available to bio-innovators around the world. « The aim is to unlock the potential of the world's biodiversity while advancing the market for bio-inspired chemicals, materials, processes and innovations that can solve some of the most pressing problems facing humanity.. »
 
Behind these fine words, there's a deal. Especially juicy. So far only 0.1 % of the DNA of animal and plant species has been sequenced. This has been enough to stimulate agriculture and the multi-billion dollar bio-industry. The statement from World Economic Forum announcing the partnership states that every dollar invested in the bio-economy returns $65 to the U.S. economy.
 

Primroses and landscapes have a serious flaw: they are free. "

In this project, each brick of the living can be exploited and monetized. Aldous Huxley once wrote " Primroses and landscapes have a serious defect: they are free of charge. "It won't be anymore. Since the dawn of time, nature, in its diversity, in its renewable materials, has been a mine of ingredients from which humans have drawn, without limit. To feed, to move, to dress, to shelter... The economy, then industry, was forged and deployed in a logic of emancipation from biological contingencies.
Taking an interest in nature to find sustainable solutions and inspiring models is a relatively new approach. The bio-economy is born out of the awareness of crossing a threshold. But, as the written the essayist Dorothée Browaeys, this movement." carries the seeds of the best and the worst. It can organize a formidable predation economy - by considering the environment as an economic good of some kind. ", forcing nature to integrate economic logic and market configuration. The living would then be reduced to informational components, biobricks with patentable functions.
 
The genetic code carried by the DNA molecule would then structure investments and innovations. Genetic engineering and molecular biology are thus linked to an economic logic of fragmentation of living organisms into biobricks or strategic genes with an exchange value. With the progress offered by genetic editing - such as the CRISPR molecular scissors - a function can be encapsulated in a gene and be the subject of a patent appropriation. This is how, all over the world, we are already seeing novel productions made possible by the reprogramming of living organisms in order to make them produce biofuels, medicines and molecules with high added value. A veritable Eldorado in which living organisms are conceived as an accumulation of Lego bricks from which engineers can draw at will. The Earth BioGenome Project is typically of that ilk. It is intended to offer - sell? - in a huge catalogue, all the Lego bricks of the living.
This movement is enabled by the NBIC convergence, a movement that connects nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science. The central value is given to information and opens up all fields of the possible. Operations can now spread from code to materials (nanotech), living organisms (biotech) and brains (neurotech).
 
The prevailing logic here is that of industrial standardization. The molecular machines provided by living things are abstracted from their natural environment and considered as functional devices. They are conceived as a work force among others. But this logic no longer holds today. Firstly, biology contests this genetic reductionism; secondly, the international community is demanding a different development model.
 

A project " has been » ?

For some decades now, biologists have been telling us that the individual structures and functions of living things cannot be taken out of context. It is the relationships and interrelationships that underpin living things. Epigenetics, by studying the molecular mechanisms that modulate the expression of genetic heritage according to context, reinforces this vision of a malleable living being in constant adjustment to its environment. Dorothée Browaeys continues in her article: "Epigenetics, by studying the molecular mechanisms that modulate the expression of genetic heritage according to the context, reinforces this vision of a malleable living being in constant adjustment to its environment. Our era is opening up to these dimensions, as shown by the craze for agroecology centred on plant symbioses and agroforestry, which advocates the cohabitation of animal and plant organisms. These practices enhance the value of ecosystems, not as a support but as a condition for all regeneration. ".
 
Isolating bricks from living things to consider them as building materials independent of their environment is a reductionist approach typical of the 1970s. With a view to optimising the potential of life itself, this type of bio-economy, even if the authors of the EBP project describe it as "inclusive", represents the ultimate stage of a globalised capitalism that is now out of fashion.
 
The world is changing. Since almost the entire planet has become aware of climate change, of the harmful effects of the hold we have had over it, of the risks of biodiversity loss with the programmed extinction of 50% species, initiatives are multiplying to adopt a different regime. The signs launched by COP 21, the One Planet Summit, the efforts of NGOs in the fight against climate change, have all contributed to changing minds. The world's major financial institutions, financiers and investors, have made no mistake and have taken the green finance train. Even more recently, in the hitherto sacred sector of new technologies, the backlash is making itself felt. While the Earth Biogenomic Project was presented to the World Economic ForumIn the same place, at the same time, voices were raised to challenge the "big tech". Sylvie Kaufmann describes today in an post of the world how the American technology giants, once the "giants of the world"... the darlings of Davos, where the infinite promise of their innovations for the benefit of mankind was highlighted. "are in the spotlight and in question, in the position of the accused. On the use of personal data, the programmed obsolescence of products, the phenomena of addiction, malicious algorithms, the exploitation of media content -traditional media, artificial intelligence-, criticism keeps pouring in.
 
So when the bioeconomy, which is a great idea when it starts to take inspiration from nature without trying to monopolize it, becomes a mega dollar machine, without concern for its main raw material, in this case living things, a malaise invades us. A bitter feeling of being old-fashioned, irrelevant and, above all, not in keeping with the aspirations of the times. Like a strange taste of colonialism with paternalistic accents, this time on all living species.
 
 

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