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How A Bank Of All The World’s Genetic Codes Hopes To Save Nature

The Earth Bank of Codes wants to collect the genetic sequence of the natural world–and let countries make money from the scientific breakthroughs that would result, rather than selling their natural resources.

How A Bank Of All The World’s Genetic Codes Hopes To Save Nature
[Source Photos: pialhovik/iStock, Muneeb Syed/Unsplash]

Traditionally, economic development and conservation have been at odds in the Amazon Basin. Businesses and governments have insisted on the need for jobs and valuable commodities like beef, timber, and hydropower. Environmentalists warn that logging, cattle ranching, and soy plantations threaten the region’s biodiversity and produce “savannization” in the world’s largest remaining tropical forest. Already 20% of the Amazon Rainforest has been cut down, reducing its ability to absorb CO2 and curb climate change.

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But entrepreneur Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio believes there’s “a third way” out of the zero-sum dilemma. By registering the region’s biological assets on a public blockchain, he thinks he can spur a new, more environmentally benign economy. The Amazon’s plants and animals contain bounties of genetic code and potential biomimetic blueprints that could one day be used to create new drugs and textiles, artificial intelligence, and energy systems, he says. In the future, there may be less need to cut down so many trees and build so many harmful hydro-dams.

A New Bio Economy

“We posit that there is a multi-trillion-dollar innovation opportunity if we make these assets visible to entrepreneurs and corporations around the world. We can develop a whole new bio-economy based on these assets,” he tells Fast Company.

Castilla, chairman of Space Time Ventures, is creating an Amazon Bank of Codes (ABC)–an open, digital platform that maps biological assets and codifies rights and obligations related to their use. The aim is to open up innovation while protecting countries and communities who’ve been victims of so-called “biopiracy” in the past. When drug companies developed ACE inhibitor blood pressure drugs from Brazilian pit vipers, for instance, they sent little value back to the country of origin. The ABC looks to enforce the Nagoya Protocol, an international convention to promote fair access to genetic data.

“It’s not only about creating new markets and new products, but importantly being able to share a portion of those revenues and specifying there should be fair and equitable benefit-sharing back to those countries that originated the biological assets in the first place,” Castilla says.

The ABC is a pilot for a larger Earth Bank of Codes (EBC)–the global version of the same idea. Those projects are partnered with the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), which is sequencing the genomes of approximately 1.5 million living species. The EBP, announced in 2015, is the equivalent of the Human Genome Project, which in 2003 finally sequenced all 3 billion letters of genetic code making up human beings.

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Castilla promoted the ABC and EBC at the recent World Economic Forum (WEF), in Davos. Several philanthropists and foundations were said to be interested in funding the projects, though the complex details of their co-operation still need to be worked out. Castilla and the WEF want to be sure that no private actor runs the show and that the rights of national governments and local people are protected. Without their cooperation in putting the biological data into the registry, it will be difficult for the project to move forward successfully.

“We’ll probably have to create a consortium such that they’re acting in the public interests appropriate to the democratic considerations of [the countries involved],” says Dominic Waughray, head of public-private partnerships at WEF, in an interview. “Philanthropists are more aware of the potential of synthetic biology. With development agencies, there’s more of a staging to go through in exploring the potential of these technological advances compared to how they’ve traditionally looked at biodiversity.”

So Much To Sequence

It’s easy to be skeptical that biological products can stand in for mining, forestry, and hydropower in the Amazonian economy. History is full of examples of conservationists and entrepreneurs foisting alternative industries on local peoples for noble goals. Coffee instead of coca. Saffron instead of opium. Seaweed instead of fish farms. But the EBC concept does have a lot going for it.

First, only about 0.1% of the world’s animals and plants have been genetically decoded so far, mostly common species like chicken and peanuts. There are hundreds of thousands of other species whose code could prove useful for bioengineering, Castilla says.

Then there’s potential for analyzing animals and plants for their patterns of behavior: Nature has been doing evolutionary R&D for millions of years. Potentially, the answers to many big global challenges–from how to get more freshwater, to how to get energy from the sun, to how to move cars around cities–could lie in better understanding and copying the natural world. For example, how some ant colonies move more efficiently than cars has interested traffic congestion experts and developers of autonomous cars.

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“The potential for economic gain from sequencing more of nature for countries and for communities is that the value stream could provide the answer to the age-old question for the biodiversity community of how do we make sure a sustaining natural habitat is worth more than cutting it down and doing mining or forestry,” says Waughray.

Second, the Human Genome Project has been a massive success in economic terms, rivaling the bang-for-buck impact of public dollars spent inventing the internet or GPS. The HGP, an international initiative led by the U.S. between 1988 and 2003, has delivered more than $1 trillion in economic value, according to a report from the Battelle Memorial Institute, a private research group in Ohio. For every $1 spent on sequencing, it has delivered $178 to the U.S. economy in the form of new drugs and diagnoses (particularly in cancer), and jobs, it says. The EBP, led by Harris Lewin, an evolutionary genomicist at the University of California, Davis, is estimated to cost $4.7 billion, a little less than the Human Genome Project in today’s dollars.

A New Economic Model

Castilla argues that developing countries need to find new forms of economic advancement. As automation increases, poorer nations will no longer necessarily have a labor cost advantage over richer nations, so the latter won’t be able to outsource their manufacturing. The China model, in other words, won’t be easy to copy. The biological economy might offer an alternative.

But actually creating the ABC and EBC will be hard. Though natural history institutions, like the Smithsonian, hold hundreds of thousands of species samples ready to be sequenced, the rest will have to be collected. To cut costs, Castilla hopes to employ drones to pick out specimens in remote places and to use handheld sequencing devices to do on-the-spot decoding.

Other challenges are more political. The project needs to persuade governments to give land access to researchers and to share data in a common form. The hope is by using an open blockchain ledger, trust can be maximized all around. Once in the system, records will be inviolable and dictated by “smart contracts”—automated code that assigns rights and revenues automatically to title holders. In other words, it will be hard for someone to come along at a later stage to change the record.

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Castilla expects the whole effort to take at least a decade to complete. “The Earth Bank of Codes needs to start somewhere, so we’re starting in the Amazon Basin,” he says. “To execute these two complex startups will take some time and some gray hairs.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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