Digital Sequence Information (DSI)


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.

Access and utilisation of physical genetic resources – plants, animals and microorganisms – are covered by the Nagoya Protocol. However, it is now possible to download DNA sequences from public databases and reconstruct the DNA then utilise it as one might a gene extracted directly from an organism. In the view of many provider countries, this provides a loophole for commercial exploitation, since there is no need for a user to seek any type of permit or agree terms for benefit sharing.

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. For this reason they are making a strong case to include it in the CBD (as well as the WHO PIP Framework, the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and the developing instrument for Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction). If it is eventually decided that DSI comes under the CBD and Nagoya Protocol, it could lead to benefit-sharing requirements and increased complexity of access to resources such as GenBank, as well as monitoring by national authorities.

Moreover, some countries, such as Brazil, have included DSI in their domestic Access legislation clauses even if the DSI is held outside their borders.

All of this has led to current legal uncertainty of our work with some countries, and a threat to open access of data.

What is DSI?

While the term ‘Digital Sequence Information’, while used in CBD discussions, it is undefined and interpreted differently by different stakeholders. 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).

g) any other derived information held on databses and elsewhere.

All of these are of interest to Museum and Gardens. 

The first CBD Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) came up with a broad set of proposals in 2018, which can be seen in their report.

A study in Concept and Scope commissioned by the CBD in 2019 is on the CBD web site here.  A meeting of a second AHTEG in March 2020 consider these and other studies (all available here) and delivered a report which will be delivered to another Convention body, for further consideration at the Conference of Parties in October 2020 (now delayed due to Conovirus and anew date is uncertain).

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. We also maintain that any monetary contributions that might in future be required as a result of the use of DSI should not be applied to academic research, and that open access to scientific data is vital. Supporting arguments have been set out to the CBD and are available here.  

Engagement by NHM, Kew and Edinburgh

This area is being considered by ABS experts in NHM, RBG Kew, CETAF and GGBN, who are keeping a watching brief on developments, sending represnetatives to relevant meetings and workshops, and advising where appropriate. We made submissions to Defra and the CBD on the subject in 2017 and 2019 explaing  our understanding of the terminology, the significance of ‘DSI’ to conservation and sustainable use, and how benefit-sharing operates in the context of DSI. More recently, we are engaged with Defra on the issue as they develop the UK policy after leaving the EU.

Other countries and organisations have also made submissions to the CBD, including CETAF and SPNHC.  

2017 submissions are here 
2019 submissions are here 

Further information

The CBD has placed on its website information and documents about the discussion and negotiations, including relevant COP decisions. This can be found here

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:

ABS Capacity Development Initiative, 2020, Report - First Global Dialogue on Digital Sequence Information on Genetic Resources 6–8 November 2019, Pretoria, South Africa. Available here

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.

CETAF (2018)  Digital Sequence Information (DSI) of Genetic Resources. Executive Statement. Online 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.

Karger, E., du Plessis and Meyer, Hartmut (2019) Digital Sequence Information on Genetic Resources (DSI) - An Introductory Guide for African Policymakers and Stakeholders.  ABS Capacity Development Initiative. 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).

Muller, M.R., 2015, Genetic Resources as Natural Information: Implications for the Convention on Biological Diversity and Nagoya Protocol. Routledge.  170pp. Available here.

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 browser has frozen]

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

Smyth, S.J., Macall, D.M., Phillips, P.W.B. and de Beer, J. (2018) Governance of Digital Sequence Information and Impacts for Access and Benefit Sharing. A report prepared by: Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy University of Saskatchewan. 24pp. 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