What is the issue ?
Differences in the way individuals and species look, act and function are the result of genetic diversity passed on by DNA or RNA. Genetic material that contains this information can have a commercial value, so many countries exercise sovereign rights over genetic resources that originate from within their territories.
Many countries also require that the benefits of research or commercialisation are shared with the providing country or indigenous peoples and local communities before they grant access to genetic resources.
At the international level, agreements to govern access and benefit sharing have been developed; for biodiversity the most prominent is the Nagoya Protocol to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
Technological advances in recent years have made it simple and affordable to sequence genomes and store this data digitally. However, the Nagoya Protocol is unclear on how to administer genetic sequence data, known as Digital Sequence Information (DSI). The lack of international agreement on this issue means that benefits resulting from DSI are sometimes not shared equitably.
At the same time, DSI is often made freely available to enable ‘big data’ science. Hundreds of billions of sequences are stored in public databases, which double in size every few years on average. This freely available DSI is used for research that benefits everyone such as vaccine development and species conservation.
Clear rules administering the sharing of DSI benefits at the international level are therefore vital to ensure equity, but could risk undermining the use of DSI for essential research if not designed and implemented carefully.