ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology


8, Apr 2024

Valuing the benefits of nature

A new set of guidelines aims to set a national standard for fair use of genetic resources.

About a year ago, a researcher was trying to send Australian native sorghum to the University of California to be genetically sequenced. He hit a roadblock at the first step. The ‘passport’ for sending samples these days is an international protocol that acknowledges the material’s custodian and offers a fair share of any derived benefits.

Known as the Nagoya Protocol, it is a treaty adopted by a large number of countries, and a growing number of universities, labs and journals around the world. Such signatories will only accept material that is Nagoya compliant, referring to the framework that regulates access and benefits of genetic resources for biotechnology research, development and other activities. It requires that potential users obtain prior consent before accessing the resource and agree on terms and conditions of access and use through a written agreement.

Australia, for reasons largely due to Federation, has signed but not ratified the Nagoya Protocol. But Chief Investigator Professor Brad Sherman, of the University of Queensland, seeks to make the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology a national exemplar for the Nagoya Protocol regardless.

‘It was that University of California situation that first triggered my interest in the Nagoya Protocol,’ says Professor Sherman. ‘Then I heard that in Germany researchers are being fined for being non-compliant.’

‘We want to ensure that any research we do is not restricted in its international use. There’d be nothing worse in developing something and trying to export the results to someone in one of the 120 or so Nagoya-compliant countries and being prevented from doing so.’

‘But more importantly we aim to be one of the leaders in Australia in establishing best practice for dealing with native genetic resources. We should be doing this not merely to comply with the law. We should be setting the best standards for what the law should be.’

Professor Sherman is working on a set of guidelines for Centre researchers that will include templates and simple flow charts to streamline the process. With Indigenous leaders, he is also working on a separate set of guidelines covering First Nations’ Traditional Knowledge. Both sets of guidelines are expected to be published in 2024.

‘Keeping pace with food demand and climate change requires continuous genetic improvement of crops that, in turn, relies on the availability of genetic resources,’ he says.

‘Following the steps laid out in these guidelines will help Centre researchers to comply with the Nagoya Protocol, Australian biodiscovery laws, environmental and conservation regulations, University policies and guidelines, and the objectives of the Centre.’

‘We want to make sure that research results can be translated and moved around the world. But do it in a way that is as painless as possible.’

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