By Dr. Justin Eze Ideozu
Survival pressure faced by organisms worldwide poses a cause for concern. Hence there is a global awareness of the need to track the hereditary domain of life of all organisms to generate essential data useful for conservation of life on earth. This is the driving force behind BioGenome Projects. In Africa, a team of scientists, in 2019, initiated a research network known as “Digital Innovations in Africa for Sustainable Agri-Environment and Conservation (DAISEA). This DAISEA network was coordinated by Dr ThankGod Echezona Ebenezer, Nigerian, who later in 2021, founded African BioGenome Project (AfricaBP; https://africanbiogenome.org) by initiating convergence of other African scientists around the DAISEA network to snow-ball into AfricaBP consortium. This gregarious scientific and socio-scientific body, with key objectives carefully articulated to drive biodiversity genomics (structure and function of the DNA/genetic complement of living things that contain and coordinate all the information that control life) for biodiversity conservation, improved agricultural productivity, capacity building among others.
Genomics has taken over from advancement of Genetics in dealing with inherited genes. We know that genes are expressed as characters. Genomics offer a means of finding and controlling the way genes are manifested. The impact of genomics cuts across all spheres of life including food security, biodiversity conservation, bio-medicine, industrial product development and services, climate change control and several other applications. Whereas Africans have fared well in the field of genomics, their output has been felt much more outside the African continent. It therefore remains inevitable to bring together Africans in the field of genomics to drive the endeavour to strengthen the foothold of this field on the African soil. For this reason, AfricaBP decides to sequence and analyze at least 80 % of the 105,000 species in Africa.
The African BioGenome Project involves researchers and partner organizations from all economic regions in the African Union, and will cost US$100 million per year. Currently, AfricaBP governed by a Steering Committee with a Chair, Professor Anne Muigai (Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya) and 5 Co-Chairs which include Professor Julian O. Osuji (University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria), Dr ThankGod Echezona Ebenezer (EMBL-EBI, UK), DR Cathrine Ziyomo (ILRI, Kenya), Prof Appolinaire Djikeng (CTLGH, Edimburgh, UK) and Prof Olivia Ntanga Mapholi, UNISA, South Africa). Professor Julian O. Osuji who is also the Chair, Genomics for the Conservation of Endangered and Endemic Species. The West African Regional Node and the Nigerian National Node of AfricaBP are coordinated from the University of Port. At present, AfricaBP has a Pilot Project Committee and several sub-committees that constitute the genome sequencing pipeline.Unipor
Dr. ThankGod Echezona Ebenezer (EMBL-EBI, UK) and Professor Julian O. Osuji (University of Port Harcourt, NigeriaAfricaBP aspires to sequence the genomes of 105,000 species of plants, animals, fungi and other organisms in 10 years. It currently involves 109 African scientists (87 of whom work in Africa) and 22 African organizations. This aspiration has commenced with a Pilot Project that is intended to sequence 2000 species in 3 years. Within one year of its existence, AfricaBP has brought together scientists, Corporate and institutional partners to achieve the set targets in Africa. In support of this agenda, the Vertebrate Genome Project (VGP) is sponsoring sequencing the genomes of selected animal species while 100 species of plants are being sponsored by 10KP. Other groups are showing interest in co-funding genome sequencing of selected species of plants, invertebrates, fish, etc.
Led by Dr ThankGod Ebenezer, a Position paper that defines the strategic programme of the African BioGenome Project was submitted to Nature Journal. In the 603rd Volume of the Nature Journal, the Position Paper titled: “Africa: Sequence 100,000 species to safeguard African biodiversity” was recently published. This paper which has Twenty one AfricaBP scientists, including Professor Julian O. Osuji, as authors and another twenty two as Co-Signatories emphasized the essence of biodiversity genomics in securing food security and biodiversity conservation in Africa. The publication, which has been reviewed by several non-African and African media groups including: Science Direct, Altmetric among others have described the article as a superlative and highly resourceful masterpiece. Altimetric, a research publication evaluation medium described the publication as being in the class of top 5 % of research outputs scored by Altimetric. In the words of Altimetric, “We’re also able to compare this research output to 623 others from the same source and published within six weeks on either side of this one. This AfricaBP Position paper has done well, scoring higher than 85 % of its contemporaries”. Several other similar ratings are internationally available for this publication.
Through the strategic functionality of the AfricaBP’s Open Institute Chaired by Dr Charlotte Chichi Ndiribe (University of Lagos), to improve sharing of data and benefits of this BioGenome initiative, knowledge gathered from the sequencing pipelines shall be disseminated to Africans through a capacity building process. It is intended that interested and qualified Africans will be trained and empowered to understand and practice genomics and bioinformatics and deploy them in the development and controlled exploitation of the huge pool of Africa’s biodiversity. “Train the trainer” processes will also address the need to empower women in the requisite fields to improve their participation in the project.
The Position Paper reported that, by our estimate, around 70% of the 35 or so projects that have focused on studying, conserving or improving biological diversity in Africa over the past 15 years have been led from outside the continent. In fact, among the plant genomes sequenced globally over the past 20 years, almost all of the African species were sequenced else where — mainly in the United States, China and Europe. This offshoring slows down the much-needed building of expertise and resources in genomics and bioinformatics in Africa.
Again, Most projects that aim to study, conserve or improve biological diversity in Africa have been led by researchers outside the continent. Often, African researchers who contribute to data collection in such projects are not always credited for their work. A 2021 study. revealed that about 15 % of 32,061 articles on global health research conducted in sub-Saharan Africa had no authors based in the country in which the research took place. This leaves Africa out of the global genome sequencing efforts. In addition, thousands of African species have been ignored by the global genomics community.
In 2010, nations adopted the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits Sharing to ensure that the benefits arising from the use of biological resources are shared fairly. Certainly, any benefit derived from the genetic resources obtained through AfricaBP should be shared by the people of Africa — whether it be a superior strain of drought-resistant sugar beet (Beta macrocarpa Guss) or a new drug derived from the rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis) of the small fish (Bostrychus africanus) that sustains larger fishes in the Niger Delta mangrove creeks. The Nagoya Protocol has gaps when it comes to Africa. It fails to take into account the customs and practices of the diverse ethnic groups across the continent. These might not be documented or written into law, but have shaped how people interact with certain plants or animals for hundreds — sometimes thousands — of years. In West Africa, for example, some communities forbid the cutting down or harming of iroko trees, which are thought to have supernatural powers.
In order to make this happen, ssince 2009, $22 million has been spent on building bioinformatics capacity across Africa through the Pan African Bioinformatics Network for H3Africa (H3ABioNet) project — including through training 150 researchers in core bioinformatics approaches and technologies. But around 10–15 % of the trainees in this Africa-led project have relocated to North America or Europe, and there is no guarantee that they will return. What’s more, H3ABioNet funding winds down this year, and there are few permanent positions for trained bioinformatics personnel in African institutions. Because of this, up to 50 % of the researchers who have received training through H3ABioNet could leave Africa. The Nelson Mandela Foundation has elected to support AfricaBP and have the Pilot animal sequencing programme named after it. There is also an effort to have Pilot plant sequencing project identify with Wangari Maathai of Kenya. Many of such identification efforts are on course.
What is the case of Nigeria? It is well-known that Nigeria is very rich in biodiversity being in the biodiversity hotspot known as the Guineo-Congolian Basin. This biodiversity wealth has been neglected over the years. In fact, most of the species are red-listed being endangered. This leaves an urgent need to deploy biodiversity genomics for conservation of the species which include wildlife, orphaned crops, medicinal herbs and industrially resourceful raw materials-yielding species. There is urgent need for the Nigerian Public and private sectors to invest heavily in AfricaBP to cover Nigerian biodiversity. The Nigerian Node is currently seeking fund to cover sequencing of eighty (80) of the endangered species found in Nigeria. The fund required in the first four years of this project is one hundred and thirty five million Naira (N135m). This project if funded will be tagged the identity desired by the financier just like the Nelson Mandela Animal and Wangari Maathai Plant sequencing projects. There is also the Aroid genome sequencing project domiciled in the Nigerian Node. This project would require about thirty million Naira (N30m) as enabling fund. Nigeria mangrove sequencing fund can sponsor sequencing of all the mangrove species found in Nigeria. Several other projects can be funded as determined or required by the funding agents to support the Nigerian or West African Nodes of AfricaBP.
Foundations in Nigeria such as Dangote Fundation, Tony Elumelu Foundation, President Obasanjo Otta Farms, Innoson Mottors, Central Bank of Nigeria, Nigeria Tertiary Education Fund (Tetfund), Bank of Agriculture, Bank of Industry and other capable private and Public bodies or establishments in Nigeria can take advantage of these projects to achieve their mandates, immortalize their identities and contribute to Nigerian Biodiversity conservation.
Shell Petroleum Development Company, Shell Nigeria Exploration Company, Mobil Producing, Nigerian Agip Oil Company, Heirs Holding Oil &Gas Limited, Sterling Oil Explorations&Energy Production Company ,SEEPCO,Limited, Conoil, Oando plc. Other oil producing companies could invest in this project as a way of contributing to biodiversity conservation in Nigeria and as a means of giving back to the environment.
Dr, Justin Eze Ideozu, the Author of the unabridged article is aMolecular Biologist that specialises in Genomic Medicine. He is currently the co-chair of the Ethics, Legal and Social Issues, ELSI, Committee of AfricaBP. He is based in the United States of America, USA.
Osuji is a Profesor of Molecular Genetics and Cytotaxonomy, University of PortHarcourt, Nigeria.