Digital Sequence Information

A challenging and important topic currently under discussion in the CBD and other conventions is ‘Digital Sequence Information’ (DSI). This includes DNA sequence data downloadable from public databases, and therefore is of major interest to taxonomists.

Currently many countries, including UK (and other EU member states) understand that sequence information downloaded from public databases is not covered by the Nagoya Protocol. However, some countries are taking the position that sequence information should be or even is covered by the Protocol, leading to an uncertain legal position. Moreover, some countries, such as Brazil, have in their domestic Access legislation clauses exerting their rights over digital sequence information even if held outside their borders. If it is eventually decided that DSI comes under the Protocol, it could lead to benefit-sharing requirements and increased complexity of access to resources such as GenBank.

The term ‘Digital Sequence Information’, while used in CBD discussions, is undefined and interpreted differently by different stakeholders (as can be seen from the CBD AHTEG report linked to below). What it might include is:

a) Nucleic acid sequence data, ranging from full genomes to DNA ’barcodes’, and sequences with known functions and with none. No minimum size for a sequence has been considered.

b) Structural annotation of genomic elements.

c) Functional annotation of genomic regions.

d) amino-acid sequence of proteins produced from gene expression (i.e. derivatives);

e) molecular structures of gene products and derivatives (cell metabolites etc).

f) contextual information (locality of origin; information on ecological relationships and abiotic factors of the environment; behavioural data; morphological data and phenotype; taxonomy).

All of these are of interest to Museum and Gardens. 

The position taken by NHM, Kew and Edinburgh (and members of CETAF) is that the term ‘Digital Sequence Information’ should only include Nucleotide Sequence Data, both of RNA and DNA. This argument has been set out to the CBD and is available here.  

This area is being considered by ABS experts in NHM, RBG Kew, CETAF and GGBN, who are keeping a watching brief on developments and advising where appropriate. In 2017 we made submissions to Defra on the subject, which can be seen here.

We have also made submissions to the CBD on the subject in 2017 and 2019 explaining our understanding of the terminology, the significance of ‘DSI’ to conservation and sustainable use, and how benefit-sharing operates in the context of DSI.  Other countries and organisations have also made submissions to the CBD, including CETAF and SPNHC.  

2017 submissions are here 
2019 submissions are here 

The CBD has placed on its website information about the discussion and negotiations, which can be found here

Important documents linked from the pages include:

  • Submissions from CETAF, GGBN, SPHNHC and from NHM, RBG Kew and RBG Edinburgh.
  • A Scoping report from 2017 (with comments from NHM).
  • The report of the Ad-Hoc Technical Expert Group on DSI.
  • Decisions from COP 13 and 14 and MOP 2 and 3.

Two presentations may be of interest, one on the use of DSI for taxonomy and other related non-commercial research on biodiversity – this can be found here.  The other is focussed more on the legal issues and definitional issues, and can be found here.

Other discussions

Relevant discussions are also be taking place in other fora:

  1. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is considering the issue. A relevant background document can be accessed here. The IISD summary of the 16th session, which included considerable discussion on digital sequence data and proposed synergistic activities with the CBD, is available here.
  2. The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is also considering the issue. A report “Digital Sequence Information” on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and its Relevance for Food Security is available here. An earlier fact-finding study is available here.
  3. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is developing an International Instrument on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction. This will include an element on ABS relating to Marine Genetic Resources. The latest draft of the instrument is the President’s Aid To Negotiations but further discussion will take place in the next two years. 
  4. The WHO has been discussing Genetic Sequence Data in the context of influenza virus.  Information can be found here. It includes a link to a report "Optimal characteristics of an influenza genetic sequence data sharing system under the pip framework"

Relevant Publications
Several relevant documents and papers are available:

Bagley, M.A., 2015, Digital DNA: The Nagoya Protocol, Intellectual Property Treaties, And Synthetic Biology. University of Virginia School of Law. Online here.

Bagley, M.A., 2017, Towering Wave or Tempest in a Teapot? Synthetic Biology, Access & Benefit Sharing, and Economic Development, in Susy Frankel and Daniel Gervais eds.THE INTERNET AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY: THE NEXUS WITH HUMAN AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT (Victoria University Press, forthcoming 2017). Text available here.

Bagley, M.A., A.K. Rai (2013). The Nagoya Protocol and synthetic biology research: a look at the potential impacts, Wilson Center, Washington, DC. Available here.

Dedeurwaerdere T, P. Melindi-Ghidi, A. Broggiato (2016). “Global scientific research commons under the Nagoya Protocol: topwards a collaborative economy model for the sharing of basic research assets”, Environmental Science & Policy 55:1, 1-10. Available here

Dedeurwaerdere T., A. Broggiato, S. Louafi, E. Welch, F. Batur (2012). “Governing Global Scientific Research Commons under the Nagoya Protocol” in Morgera E., M. Buck, E. Tsioumani (eds)  The Nagoya Protocol in Perspective: Implications for International Law, Martinus Nijhoff. Available here.

Garrity G.M., L.M. Thompson, D.W. Ussery, N. Paskin, D. Baker, P. Desmeth, D.E. Schindel and P.S. Ong (2009) Studies on Monitoring and Tracking Genetic resources. UNEP/CBD/WG-ABS/7/INF/2. (2013).

Hammond, E. (2016). Digital genebankers plan to ignore UN request on the impact of genomics and synthetic biology on access and benefit sharing, Third World Network, A preliminary Report, 4 April. Available here

Hammond, E., 2016. TWN briefing “Digital DNA” and Biopiracy: Protecting Benefit-Sharing as Synthetic Biology Changes Access to Genetic Resources. Available here.

Lawson, C. & Rourke, M., 2016, Open Access DNA, RNA and Amino Acid Sequences: The Consequences and Solutions for the International Regulation of Access and Benefit Sharing. Available for download here.   Abstract:  This article addresses how open access to DNA, RNA and amino acid sequences might be reconciled with the benefit sharing obligations under the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity and its Nagoya Protocol, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations’ International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and the World Health Organisation’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework for the Sharing of Influenza Viruses and Access to Vaccines and Other Benefits. Tracing the evolution of open access databases the article posits models for reconciling open access and benefit sharing, the article concludes, however, that none of the proposed solutions – monitoring and tracing, the contract model, and the copyright and database right model – provides a perfect solution. Each model does, however, suggest that open access to these sequences might be at least partially reconciled with benefit sharing.

Manzanella, D. 2016, The Global Information System And Genomic Information: Transparency Of Rights And Obligations. Background paper commissioned by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (click on title to open).

Reichman, J.H., Paul F. Uhlir, P.F. & Dedeurwaerdere, T., 2016, Governing Digitally Integrated Genetic Resources, Data and Literature: Global Intellectual Property Strategies for a Redesigned Microbial Research Commons. (Cambridge U. Press)   Information on how to obtain the book here. [NB There is an option to read a pre-publication version; whever I have tried to access it my browserhas frozen]

Servick, K., 2016, Rise of digital DNA raises biopiracy fears. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.aal0395  Online here

There is a view in some quarters that the key issue is not DNA sequences per se but the distribution of ‘Natural Information’. For example: 
Muller, M.R., 2015, Genetic Resources as Natural Information: Implications for the Convention on Biological Diversity and Nagoya Protocol. Routledge.  170pp. Available here.

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith