The Emergence of Digital Sequence Information (DSI) and Its Implication for the Law on Access to Genetic Resources and Bioprospecting

Chapter 5 in Niels Krabbe and David Langlet (eds), Marine Bioprospecting, Biodiversity and Novel Uses of Ocean Resources: New Approaches in International Law. Bloomsbury, 2024. 

Genetic resources – defined as biological materials of actual or potential value containing functional units of heredity – are essential for much of the world’s economic activity. This includes the improvement of agricultural crops and the development of traditional medicines on which most of the world’s population still depend. The uses of genetic resources from plants, animals, microorganisms and invertebrates range from basic research to the development of products in sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry, agriculture, aquaculture, horticulture, cosmetics and biotechnology. The combined annual global markets for the products derived from genetic resources have been estimated to be between 500 and 800 billion USD. Increasingly, the search for new and useful genetic resources is conducted in the maritime realm, including the deep sea beyond national jurisdiction. Since 1999, the number of patents originating from marine genetic resources (MGR) has increased by an average of 12 per cent each year. Today, there are over 18,000 products with their origins in marine organisms belonging to 4800 named species. The actual and potential benefits from genetic resources − and the fact that the South is generally richer in biodiversity and genetic resources than the North, where much of the scientific and technological capacity to utilise genetic resources is found − has made access to genetic resources and benefit sharing from their use a complex and controversial topic in international law. This includes the now concluded negotiations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on an implementing agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of the marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), which were also mandated to cover this topic. Complexity and controversy have deepened as new technological developments significantly reduce the demand for physical genetic material. Such material can now be digitally sequenced, and data exchanged rapidly between researchers, institutions, countries and databases. The amount of digital sequence information (DSI) in publicly available databases is increasing exponentially, as is the exchange and use of such data. This chapter examines the discussions in international forums on the legal aspects of DSI, emphasising how the emergence of DSI has affected a new BBNJ instrument under UNCLOS.



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