Earlier this year I was in Borneo, the world’s third largest island and Southeast Asia’s biodiversity hotspot. Borneo’s rainforests are estimated to be around 140 million years old – one of the oldest rainforests in the world that is home to many species found nowhere else on our planet. The island’s biodiversity holds many secrets that scientists are just beginning to uncover through biological research: meticulous sampling, sequencing and cataloging of the millions of species that inhabit these pristine ecosystems. Potential cancer cures, new antibiotics, and molecules with antiaging properties may be out there—they just haven’t been discovered yet.
With advances in biotechnology, we can now easily sample the genetic sequences of thousands of plants, animals and microbes. Sequencing DNA from different organisms has revealed a whole range of proteins and enzymes that can perform countless functions from creating sustainable materials, flavors and aromas to developing new medicines. The field of synthetic biology, which has exploded in the last decade, relies on finding proteins with specific characteristics – such as to make an egg white softer or with a sweeter taste. But how do scientists find those proteins? They usually turn to natural sequence databases for inspiration. Chances are – whatever you’re looking for, nature has already created. But success in finding it depends on how rich and varied the data is.
This is why biodiversity can be big business. But it is fraught with controversy: profiting from nature’s riches has historically been linked to exploitative practices dating back to the colonial period. From quinine used to treat malaria to neem, which spawned a notorious patent revocation case, the active ingredients found in plants are often identified from the knowledge of indigenous cultures and extracted from resources belonging to those communities. In the age of biotechnology, genetic sequences have become an equally valuable commodity, raising concerns about digital biopiracy that may be even more difficult to track than the use of physical plant material. The key question is: how can we harness the biological diversity of our planet without taking advantage of indigenous communities or disrupting ecosystems?
Basecamp Research, a biotech company based in London, is working to solve this problem. With a mission to reconnect biotechnology with biodiversity, they are building the world’s largest database of natural DNA sequences that is entirely ethically sourced. This week, Basecamp Research announced that they have raised $20 million in Series A funding [KT1] led by climate investor Systemiq Capital, bringing the company’s total funding to $30 million. The Basecamp team is working around the world to create partnerships with local communities to collect and protect biological data, and to make it easier for synthetic biology companies to access valuable genetic information that can help them develop new sustainable products.
Nature surpasses scientists
Synthetic biologists today are creating new catalytic enzymes and therapeutic proteins using advanced tools such as artificial intelligence. But a machine learning model is only as good as the data it’s trained on. The company’s co-founders, Glen Gowers and Oliver Vince, understand this limitation better than anyone. While earning their PhDs in synthetic biology and bioengineering, they both spent considerable time trying to improve enzymes using state-of-the-art protein tools, only to be humbled to discover that a better version already existed. available in nature.
Photo: Basecamp Research co-founder Glen Gowers on location in Iceland. Credit: Basecamp Research
“We went out of our way to find only one better protein in nature,” Glen recalls. “And this idea arose that nature already has the solutions that biotechnology requires. We just don’t have the research tools or the resources to be able to figure it out.”
The co-founders of Basecamp had another thing in common: their passion for the outdoors. In 2019, they went on a month-long expedition to Europe’s largest ice cap in Iceland to set up the first completely off-grid DNA sequencing operation. After returning from the expedition and analyzing the data they collected there, they were surprised to discover an incredible diversity of life in such a harsh environment: “We’ve discovered since then, much less than 1% of what’s out there in terms. of genetic biodiversity has been discovered”, Vince assesses. “And even what we know has not been able to be analyzed by biotech companies.”
The two started Basecamp Research to help create the most comprehensive database of biological sequences in existence. They have assembled a diverse team of experts from world-class field researchers to biodiversity specialists, molecular biologists and data scientists. The company’s multidimensional data is annotated with tags that map the genetic diversity of the nature from which the samples were collected, environmental variables and any other available information. They then use deep learning techniques to discover new proteins and optimize them to meet their customers’ specifications, with applications including pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, cosmetics, gene editing, nutrition and bioremediation.
Protecting biodiversity through partnership building
The work Basecamp Research is doing to catalog and mine natural biodiversity is just one part of the company’s efforts. The other is building partnerships with local communities, conservation agencies and establishing regulatory agreements. Concerns about companies commercializing indigenous knowledge and natural resources have led the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to create the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement aimed at sharing the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources in a fair and equitable manner. equal. . What this means is that if you find a sequence in the jungles of Borneo, you have to pay some of the royalties to the people of Borneo.
Using genetic data or digital sequence information (DSI
Basecamp Research wants to make it easier for researchers to access valuable genetic data without violating any ethical considerations. Every sample they collect is in accordance with the Nagoya Protocol of the United Nations. Their goal is to make the Nagoya Protocol work for all parties: they do the heavy lifting when it comes to setting up agreements so that when companies come to them for assets, they don’t have to worry about breaching national and international biodiversity laws: “We have partnerships in 18 countries with biodiversity hotspots,” said Oliver. “These are benefit-sharing agreements where we give back: we build research capacity, we do training and we develop laboratories in those countries.”
This is the kind of team effort needed to ensure local communities are not left behind. In my travels to Borneo over the years, I met Charlie Yeo, who is the CEO of the Sarawak Biodiversity Center in Kuching, Malaysia. The center embodies the principles of conservation, responsible use of resources and protection of natural biodiversity. It was originally established as the gatekeeper for those who wanted access to Sarawak’s biological resources for research or commercial purposes, but it has since become much more. Charlie and other Sarawak staff members go to sites to catalog biodiversity and learn how indigenous people use their resources, ensuring communities benefit from it too.
“The Sarawak Biodiversity Center’s role is to regulate research and facilitate ethical access to traditional knowledge and genetic resources,” says Charlie. “We have a regulatory framework to ensure that we can work with companies on mutually agreed terms. These agreements should ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources for companies, Sarawak and indigenous peoples and local communities.”
Glen commented on the importance of the work done by the Sarawak Centre: “The Sarawak Biodiversity Center is a model of what we would like to see happen in any country and on any continent,” he said. “These are centers dedicated to exploring their biodiversity and hopefully monetizing their diversity without disrupting ecosystems. This is an amazing foundational principle of the Sarawak Biodiversity Center that we share.”
“They have done an outstanding job and we would like to collaborate with them in the future,” said Oliver.
In less than three years, the Basecamp team has collected samples on 65 expeditions from Antarctica to the Azores and developed a sophisticated biological database. This database can be accessed by companies to develop new pharmaceuticals, materials, animal-free protein alternatives, enzyme catalysts used for biomanufacturing and more. As they work to create the largest knowledge base of genetic sequences, they have already collected thousands of samples from 40% of Earth’s biomes and expanded the diversity of proteins known to science by 50%. And they’re just getting started.
“Biodiversity is the most important resource of our natural world that we need to protect,” Oliver believes. A single drug can cost billions of dollars, but there is a lot of red tape involved in gaining access to these valuable protein sequences. The company Basecamp aims to build a bridge between biotechnology and the bioeconomy where the economic benefits from biotechnology are turned into supporting biodiversity and the exploration of biodiversity drives the development of biotechnology. Hopefully, with the help of organizations like the Sarawak Biodiversity Center and Basecamp Research, biotechnology will be able to harness the power of nature to its fullest while also giving back.
Thank you Katia Tarasava for additional research and reporting on this article. I am the founder of SynBioBeta and some of the companies I write for are sponsors SynBioBeta Conference AND weekly digestion.
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